On Thriving In A Small Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching While Black

kc-williamsNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  KC Williams taught sociology at a small Southern community college but is now the director of African-American student affairs at the University of Arizona. A proud #ChocolateCardinal, KC earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Stanford University. She has begun a new career in public speaking and writing on feminism and race. KC tweets @ProfKCW, blogs at Amplify Voices and manages several Facebook pages including Blackademia, Welcome to My Post-Racial Life, and Fight the Tower.

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For any black faculty member who has ever felt imposed upon or discriminated against for reasons having nothing to do with your abilities, you may have been discovered to be TWB — Teaching While Black.

Even for black folk who think they share MFB (most favored black) status at their college, the rules of Teaching While Black still apply. Let one of your white students get their feelings hurt during a lecture on race — a lecture that you have been hired to deliver — then you will see how treacherous TWB can be and how quickly your most favored black status changes. Exhibits A through E: Melissa Harris-Perry, Shannon Gibney, Ersula Ore, Saida Grundy and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (just to name a few).

Somewhere along the way, we got it twisted. Many academic institutions were happy with your blackness only as long as it was propping up their sad diversity numbers. As long as you conform and stay in the shadows of their achievements, you are good to go, but if you are going to be one of “those blacks” — the troublemakers, activists, uppity black folk — now that’s another story.

When you lose that most favored black status, you will know. There will be an air of hostility from your colleagues in meetings. People you do not even know will begin to ignore you.

Secretaries will tattle on you, even if you have never done anything but support them. Some may go as far as to record their conversations with you, type them up and proclaim that they will testify in court to the comments made. Male maintenance workers will burst in the faculty restroom door, walk right in and ignore your presence, brushing by you with not so much as an “excuse me.” A vice president might call you “sassy” or “elitist” and demand that you take your prestigious alma mater out of your syllabus because it intimidates your (white) students. Yet they will also advise that you take people “out of their comfort zones.”

The college newsletter may publish your credentials incompletely, because to write them up properly — inclusive of the “with departmental honors” addendum — “might make others feel bad.” You will wonder if they actually realize how difficult it is to graduate with honors from a program like that. The very same tools required to get hired will suddenly become a barrier to full participation in that job.

Colleagues will take their disdain to the next level by sending problematic students your way or by actively dissuading them from taking your classes. Some of those students may disobey and take your course anyway. Later, they will come to you and report the negative, racist comments made while they were registering, and will put it in writing. The others? They let you know who they are on the first day of class as they sit with their arms crossed and faces torn up before you have even introduced yourself. Nearly all will soften as the semester goes on, because after all, you are not actually a monster, but you have been caught TWB.

Staff members who are paid to advocate for your role of leadership in the classroom will actively undermine your authority by empowering students to misbehave. They will encourage those students to skip the chain of command and write memos directly to the college president or vice presidents for any and all perceived rebuffs. Worst of all, when students misbehave in ways that most would consider beyond the pale, even criminally, those same staffers will stand around the water cooler discussing why you just can’t be nicer to students.

Some students will refuse to address you respectfully, but they will do so with a smile. They may even attempt to call you by your first name after you have introduced yourself to them professionally with the expected “Dr.” or “Professor” preceding your last name — on the first day of class, writing it on the board and in the syllabus.

When you’re Teaching While Black, your colleagues will also join in the fray. They will pull the office visit drive-by, wherein they will come by to ask you some basic question about some abstract theory, just to see if they can catch you off guard. And suddenly, all of them have a cousin or a neighbor who attended your alma mater; they want you to know that you are not that special. One may bring you an article explaining how they, as a Jewish person, benefit from inherent intelligence, while black people do not. They will wonder aloud to others why you kicked them out of your office. Little did they know a staffer was bragging about keeping down costs on a student fair by noting that they had “Jewed them down.”

You may see your college president around town, and despite the fact that there are rarely more than four or five black faculty (out of nearly 150), he will ask you where you work. Every time. He might do so in front of his administrators at a statewide conference, asking, “Where did we get you from?” as if you were acquired from a street corner, orphanage or auction block.

But you will fully realize you are TWB when the most atrocious things happen. When a student leaves a racist message on your office door display, or boldly tells you they do not believe you went to your university because they googled you and could not find you anywhere, or they bring a fully formed noose to the classroom to threaten you. Criminal.

Time and again, in even only the last three years, we have seen administrations handle these situations fecklessly. They have engaged in victim blaming and shaming, fired or written up the faculty member, failed to act in any meaningful way against perpetrators, and smeared the names and reputations of the victims. When you confront them head-on with the reality that you expect to be treated with respect and fairness, the Jim Crow claws come out. “How dare you not know your place, black person!” “Who do you think you are, elitist black person?” “You seem to think you deserve more than anyone else!”

This is the formula. It seems very few institutions take inclusion and equity seriously. Even those that do still handle racism and anti-blackness like it was something you were supposed to prevent — that it is an inconvenience that makes them look bad, and that is your fault.

So what can you do? Do you. Resist being lulled into the false comfort of respectability politics. Don’t think that you can “coon” your way into fair treatment — because if that is your plan, you have already lost. You know better and can sense that there is a problem if you ever find yourself thinking you have to be nicer, less bold, let it “roll off your shoulders” or hold back critique.

Don’t dull your shine for their comfort. Use the system to forward your professional goals and those of your students. Pay attention to students of color and inspire them by being fully black. Stand in your blackness because you stand on the shoulders of those who were not allowed to do so.

I came across this poem by Andria Nacina Cole, and I can’t stop thinking about how apropos it is.

They will come for your throat, Black girl. They will kill themselves trying to keep you in your place. Buck. Write pretty speeches in their language. Use their own words against them. Remember the community from which you come. And chip, chip, chip away at their systems. Forever. Until they come crashing down at their motherfucking feet.

There’s no alternative — you are black, while engaging in a noble profession within a hostile society that sees your blackness as a threat. So let it. As you work to dismantle the system, change how you respond to it. Be professional. Be committed. Be engaged.

But be you. Beautiful, powerful, wonderful black you.

“Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. II” By Fatimah Williams Castro

CastroNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@FatimahPhD) is on a mission to help academics see, explore and secure professional opportunities beyond the professoriate. She blogs at Beyond the Tenure Track, where you can also find her downloadable video guide, “How To Expand and Explore Your Options.”

Stepping Off the Tenure Track, Pt. 2

In last week’s blog post, I shared a bit about my journey considering a life and career beyond academic teaching and research. As a first-generation college student, the first in my family to earn a doctorate and a woman of color, my stepping off the tenure track could not be decoupled from community, professional and social responsibilities. I experienced the struggle that many Ph.D.s describe when they venture out into the broader world of work, attempting to refashion their selves and their careers in new and sometimes strange ways.

For me, it was worth it to make this transition so I could exercise the skills, talents and voice that make me feel most myself. As a career consultant, I work with academics who are exploring their career options by choice and by circumstance.

Still, most Ph.D.s come to the process a bit behind the job-search learning curve. That is how I came to develop resources such as the “Top 45 Nonacademic Careers” list and the online seminar and guide “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.”

It is not uncommon to wonder whether it is worth it to leave a career you know for one you do not, even if you feel disenchantment with where you are and are curious about where you could go.

Here are three things to consider as you contemplate your options.

First, consider what is going on in your life that is causing you to doubt an academic career. Doctoral programs span a good portion of our adult lives, taking anywhere between five and 10 (or possibly more) years to complete. During this time, your ideas about your preferred lifestyle, career and way of working may shift.

Life events may also raise questions about whether to remain in an academic career. The birth of a child. A partner’s job relocation. The desire to increase your income. An aging parent who requires your assistance. Before taking the leap, consider whether a temporary break might help you reconnect with your work as a scholar. Ask yourself: Are your degree and career trajectory still aligned with your interests and career goals?

Map out your updated career goals, interests, ideal work environment and lifestyle goals to see if the degree is still a core requirement for getting there. This process is kind of like doing a personal strategic plan.

Second, get information and take advantage of the resources available to you. Too often, graduate students and faculty members feel the nudge to explore their professional options, but the fear of even the thought of curiosity beyond the academy holds them back. They worry that they may get distracted from their primary goal of finishing the dissertation or securing tenure.

But I cannot stress this enough: exploring is not the same thing as leaving. Learn your options so you can take advantage of them should you need them or desire them.

Get as much information as you can about your interests outside academe. Conduct informational interviews and attend professional events in your area or events around your interests that have nothing to do with research and teaching. Talk with friends, former college roommates, family members and a career coach who can help you consider industries and careers of which you may not even be aware. I developed the Top 45 Nonacademic Careers resource list to familiarize graduate students and Ph.D.s with career fields and industries that have been successful transition points for academics.

You do not have to settle for any career path because supposedly “people with a degree in (fill in your discipline) do (fill in the career),” or “people your age do (fill in the career)” — or any other standard line that you may hear. But you will not have the courage and vision to see what you can do and who you can be if you do not first explore your options.

Third, reframe your definition of failure. Ask yourself these questions: What does it mean to fail? What would it look like if I failed? How would I move forward if this endeavor failed? By the time many grad students and faculty members contact me for coaching, they feel like they have given up on academe and on themselves.

Some are working through deep feelings of shame and rejection and the feeling that they have not been successful in their careers. Some have not been awarded tenure as they expected, while others have made the choice that their relationship with academe needed to end. No matter the impetus for change, they all share a lingering sense of loss and failure.

Asking the questions above help you to identify what failure is and is not. You may find that failure is really just transition. There is always a next step and a second avenue if the original idea does not result as you had hoped.

In addition to these three steps, you will want to be aware of the most common assumptions and missteps that academics make when leaving the academy. I held an online seminar on this very topic. Gathering the feedback from the 73 attendees, I developed a quick guide from the seminar called “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.” When you have worked so hard for your degree, you should not have to stumble around to put it to use however you need or desire.

Advice For Minority Scholars On “Unfriending Friends”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was unfair.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. I” By Fatimah Williams Castro

CastroNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@FatimahPhD) is on a mission to help academics see, explore and secure professional opportunities beyond the professoriate. She blogs at Beyond the Tenure Track, where you can also find her downloadable video guide, “How To Expand and Explore Your Options.”

Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. I

I remember when I made the decision to apply to graduate school. I was excited about the prospect of being able to dig into topics that interested me and to make a life and career out of those interests. I really wanted to examine deeply questions of race and political mobilization among Black populations in Colombia. I wanted to take an in-depth look at the relationships between constitutional laws recognizing Black populations and the diverse lived experiences of Blackness in Colombia. I marveled at the prospect of being paid to read, write and teach about topics that I was passionate about. What could be better?

Fast-forward six years. I had had a great run as a graduate student. National fellowships. International conference presentations. Publications in refereed journals. An offer for a postdoctoral fellowship at a great university located close to my family.

Yet I started to have doubts. I had a nagging feeling of unease. What if the academic path would not allow me to exercise some of the best parts of my personality and talents — at least not until after tenure, if I could bear it that long?

What If I Decided Not to Pursue an Academic Career?

I will admit that the very thought of forgoing a traditional academic career felt indulgent and selfish. I was the first person in my family to earn a doctorate. Organizations that support diverse scholars had bestowed recognition and fellowships on me. I went to a prestigious, predominantly white university as an undergraduate, so I knew just how powerful it could be as a student of color to have women and men of color as faculty members.

As I considered the cost of leaving, I consulted the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates to calculate how many doctoral degrees in the United States were conferred to African-American women my graduation year. I discovered just 4 percent were — and even fewer were awarded to Black men. Who exactly did I think I was? People were counting on me — and literally counting me — to help turn the tide on the low numbers of faculty of color and to contribute great scholarship to my field.

Ultimately, however, I stepped off the tenure track. It was not a straightforward process, but transitions rarely are. To find my first post-academic job, I struggled to determine what was best for me next.

I did not know whom to confide in about my idea to pursue a life and career beyond academic teaching and research. My dissertation advisers had invested so much time and energy in developing me as a scholar. I felt that I could not let them down, and I did not think they could help me determine what could come next for me professionally.

I talked to my college friends who had gone into public health, medicine and consulting careers. They did not understand why I felt stuck at considering and applying to new options. Unlike them, I did not see the world in terms of industries, skills and abilities. They had no clue how to help me reframe my skills and the last six years of my life into a convincing narrative and application materials that hiring managers would find valuable.

I attended workshops at my university’s career services office. I met with a campus career coach. I did my best to overlook the fact that the programming was geared toward undergraduates in their early 20s eager to find their first job, while I was in my 30s with a Ph.D., married and looking not just for a new career but for a new way of being, operating and expressing myself. Neither my friends nor campus career services understood what it meant to be an academic in search of a new space and place for myself. For better or worse, under current training models, a doctorate is not just a degree, it is also an identity.

I spent countless hours scouring large job sites like indeed.com, usajobs.gov, and idealist.org. But I did not see myself or my skills represented in the job descriptions.

My curiosities led me to professional events in such diverse fields, which, on one hand, was exciting and eye-opening, but, on the other, inefficient and costly. Each event would require me to describe myself in new ways, when ideally you want to hone a particular professional introduction that can eventually lead you to the right contacts and job opportunities. The cost of registration and travel to networking events can mount up quickly, especially with an unfocused search.

I struggled to determine what was best for me next, networked tirelessly and sat through demoralizing interviews. I did not have the information or resources to help me understand and evaluate my options. So I created them.

I desired a more streamlined, step-by-step system for the job search, as an alternative to piecing together information from disparate books, blogs and other sources. I wanted career advice customized to the particular challenges of Ph.D. job seekers who are searching for new career options by choice or by circumstance. I wanted a program that had empathy for what it means to be a person of color or first-generation graduate feeling the weight of social, professional and economic expectations during this career transition.

I took everything I learned and designed a career exploration program called Options for Success. The program allows academics to explore their career options in a safe space. There is no pressure to transition to a non-faculty career; rather, the emphasis is on information on career options and professional work environments, strategies for determining what you want in your post-academic career and life, and assessments to identify your skills and their value to employers.

Those same tools led me to interview for director-level positions with annual salaries ranging from $65,000 to $95,000 and to secure freelance contracts with nationally recognized companies and nonprofits. But I am most proud of participants in the Options for Success program who have successfully transitioned from being unemployed history, linguistics and mechanical engineering Ph.D.s to employed professionals in data science, nonprofit management and research. I strongly believe that academics have the opportunity and skills to work in diverse careers. We just need a streamlined and empathetic process to help us explore our options and to get us from point A to point B.

If you are wondering whether it makes sense to leave the academy, stay tuned for part two of this article, where I’ll share three things to consider as you prepare for your future.

Addressing Racist Microaggressions In Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Include Readings By, About, And For Women On Your New Syllabus

End Patriarchy by Charlotte Cooper

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

I have lots of thoughts about Historiann’s ( recent essay, “A woman’s work is never done, part II: and even when it is, it’s not on the syllabus.”  I agree with the argument — that pieces by and about women are underrepresented on syllabi in college-level courses.  I also appreciate the suggestions provided to counter this unintentional but systematic erasure of women on instructors’ syllabi, and even in their peer-reviewed publications.  Go read Historiann’s essay first; here is the link again.

I say that I have lots of thoughts because I slipped into a Twitter rant about syllabus preparation, impostor syndrome, and social justice after sharing Historiann’s essay early this morning.  I decided these many thoughts warranted a blog post.

With each new course that I prepare, that dreaded voice of self-doubt — a symptom of impostor syndrome — gets on my internal microphone, distracting me as I develop the syllabus.  As part of the broader struggle I have with the pressure to conform (or not) to the academic status quo, I face the real temptation to teach what everyone else teaches.  I have a tendency to start syllabus preparation by downloading every syllabus on the course’s focus (and some only somewhat relevant, as well); I may even email colleagues for copies of their syllabi if they are comfortable sharing them.  (The American Sociological Association’s TRAILS archive of peer-reviewed syllabi is a wonderful tool.)  But, then, I am overloaded with data.  So, I try to hone in on repeated topics and readings.  “Ah, ok, so covering [fill in the blank] seems expected for this course.”  This approach may be a good “training wheels” way to design a course that is far outside of your expertise and/or for graduate students who are still learning their field.

However, I have learned the hard way that conforming to what seems to be the norm for that subfield — creating the syllabus I believe abstract others would approve of — creates for a miserable course.  It is boring, leaving me few opportunities to teach the things about which I am passionate.  It leaves me fumbling to teach topics I know nothing about; sometimes, it shows, and students call my expertise and competence into question on course evaluations.  (Sadly, this only sets in motion a cycle of feeling like an impostor.  “Why did I think I could teach this class in the first place?”)  And, I do my students a disservice by teaching the little more I know about the subject than they do, rather than exposing them to topics that I know well and care deeply about.  It’s just a mistake all around, makes for a miserable course with crappy student evaluations, and only reinforces my self-doubt.

So, in 2014, I first wrote a blog to encourage fellow instructors to silence the voice of self-doubt and impostorism and, instead, center the voice of authenticity, originality, and passion in designing a new course.  I have learned that I should be teaching what I know and care about rather than following what everyone else does.  I was hired for this position because of my expertise and unique perspective, and asked or allowed to teach X course for those same reasons.  (That is, unless it is one of those rare times when the department is in a bind and has to ask faculty to teach something outside of their expertise.)  So, allowing fear to steer me away from my unique approach makes no sense.  An authentic approach to teaching is more fun for my students and me.  And, it is crucial for challenging the academic status quo.  Conforming to what every one else does may actually be contributing to the systemic erasure of oppressed communities and controversial topics.  The world around us changes, and we must keep up with it; we do our students a disservice by letting tried and true approaches to teaching dictate how we continue to teach and what we teach well into the future.

So, Historiann’s plea for gender inclusion in course syllabi resonates with thoughts I have wrestled with for some time.  As a mere matter of science, it is shameful that we are having to convince our colleagues that they should take the time to include works by and about women on their syllabi.  Excluding women — whether knowningly or unknowingly — is bad science; you can’t name a single field or discipline that is entirely devoid of women scholars and scholarship on women, not even the fields that are dominated by men.  So, if your default approach to syllabus preparation yields lots of pieces by and about men, you’re doing it wrong — and you probably need to assess where this sexist bias is coming from.  It may just be a matter of laziness and comfort — that you don’t want to take the extra time to track down women authors (as though they are hard to find) or to read pieces you haven’t read a million times before and thus keep assigning to save time.  Whatever your personal decision-making process, you may very well be contributing to the systemic invisibility of women in the academy.  If you’re not proactively including women, you are part of academia’s patriarchy problem.

I suspect that some want to take a feminist approach to designing and teaching their courses — here, using feminism in the most moderate terms, of seeing women as people (too) — but, worry about a backlash from students in their formal course evaluations, on sites like RateMyProfessor.com, and maybe even being challenged in class and/or by email.  You’re probably a privileged white heterosexual cis dude currently without disabilities if these are not concerns you have on a regular basis.  These are realistic worries for marginalized faculty, especially those who have the audacity (channeling conservative privileged students here) to teach about their marginalized community.  I share this worry, which is why conformity has been so tempting as my shield — the suits, the delaying of new piercings and tattoos, the fretting over my blogging, the politically tepid syllabi, and so forth.

I’ve got a few responses to these concerns, the first and most pessimistic being that you’ll face backlash no matter what (so, fuck it — teach to your feminist heart’s content).  I acknowledge that this is hard, and encourage you to only push students when you feel ready and have the capacity and support available to weather their (potential) backlash.  But, we only exacerbate the problem of sexism in academia if we repeatedly run to conformity out of fear.  And, I want to remind you that our job is to educate students, which sometimes includes making them uncomfortable; we do them and society writ large a disservice if we only tell them what they (think they) want to hear.  I would say we do our marginalized students even more harm by caving to privileged students’ demand for the expected — biased content that excludes women and centers men’s voices and writing.  They aren’t seeing themselves, hearing people like themselves, and are losing out on having their consciousnesses raised.  I can’t help but wonder why the majority of college-educated white women voted for a known rapist over a woman for US president; yes, their racism played a role — something that also should be better addressed in the classroom — but it scares me that they weren’t moved by a feminist consciousness to vote in a way that would advance their status rather than set them back by a century.  But, I digress…

I imagine that another reason some instructors will hesitate to intentionally insure the inclusion of women on their course syllabi is being turned off by what seems like an effort to push a feminist agenda.  Maybe you’re in the STEM fields and social issues like gender equality seem less relevant to your subject.  Or, you feel you’re just teaching to educate, not to indoctrinate.  But, as I’ve already said, contributing to the broader pattern of centering men’s voices over women’s in your courses is bad science and pedagogy.  You are perhaps failing to apply a critical lens to what pieces are seen as fundamental to your field, to what pieces are considered “classic” texts, to which authors and what topics are published in the top journals of your field, and to whom is awarded grants to carry out their research.  You may not want to advance the political project of feminism by taking the time to include pieces by, about, and for women on your syllabus; but, in doing so, you are actually advancing the political project of patriarchy.  You can’t me neutral on the issue of gender equity; either you are intentionally promoting the work of women, or you are complicit in their invisibility.  What will you chose?  (It had better be feminism, damnit.)

So, I leave you with Historiann’s request: take the time to include scholarship by, about, and for women on your course syllabi.  Failing to do so is bad science, bad for our students and our society, and only perpetuates sexism.