Open Scholarship As Intellectual Activism

VCU Open Access Talk

In March, I participated on a panel on open scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was invited because of my use of blogging to make academic knowledge more accessible, and being fairly visible as a scholar on social media in general.  In my presentation, I introduced the concept of intellectual activism and spoke about the risks associated with such work, particularly for marginalized scholars.  You can see the text from my talk below.

Open Scholarship as Intellectual Activism

Progress has been made toward making academic research, knowledge, and resources accessible to the broader public.  This is a great cause. It is certainly a matter of justice and equality.  Ironically, a number of scholars – particularly those from marginalized communities themselves (women, people of color, LGBT people) – cannot or are hesitant to participate in the move toward open access.  However, many scholars, particularly marginalized scholars, participate in a different form of open scholarship: intellectual activism.  My primary aim is to introduce what intellectual activism is, what it looks like, and some of the benefits and risks of this kind of open scholarship.

“Professors, We Need You!”

I want to start by sharing an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, entitled “Professors, We Need You!”   Kristof argues that scholars are irrelevant, or at least not as relevant as we should be, to important national debates, policy-making, etc.  Academic disciplines have become too specialized.  Some are too left-leaning.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.  This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.  Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I think that he raises an important concern, albeit supported by some problematic claims.  But, his characterization of scholars’ efforts to engage the broader public fails to give us enough credit.

 “Open” Research

There is evidence of open scholarship on each of the three major tasks of every academic’s career: research, teaching, service.  The primary meaning of open access is to making published articles freely accessible to the general public, most likely online.  Some progress has been made on this front.  There have recent developments in my own discipline, Sociology, including the creation of Sociological Science, an independent open-access journal, and a new open access journal that the American Sociological Association will soon launch.

One weakness of this approach is that open access does not necessarily translate into accessibility.  As Kristof pointed out, there is a great deal of academic writing that cannot be understood by most people outside of academia, possibly scholars’ own discipline, or even their subdiscipline. I share each new publication with my parents – keeping up the practice since I was finger-painting in kindergarten.  Some articles they understand, and can either comment or ask questions, and to others they just smile and say “good job.”  In the latter case, I am sure they haven’t a clue what the article is about.  My point here is that even passing out free copies of the latest issue of American Sociological Review, the top journal in my field, would do little to advance open access.

“Open” Teaching

On the teaching side of open access, there are a number of scholars who advance open scholarship as a means of educating the broader public.  This may be actually explaining one’s research in understandable language, rather than simply making one’s publications available.  Others, for example, maintain blogs through which they explain difficult academic concepts and theories in accessible terminology.

I blogged for the Kinsey Institute for five years, as a graduate student at Indiana University.  The site offers short, accessible posts on sexual health and the latest research on sex and sexuality.  There are other scholars who maintain blogs that serve almost as an introductory course, in the form of blogs.   But, often connect to current events to keep the content relevant.

In addition to blogging, a number of scholars use Twitter, sometimes using a hashtag (e.g., #SaturdaySchool) to advance accessible teaching.  Using #SaturdaySchool, several scholars will decide on a topic to discuss, and, essentially as a conversation, you have multiple perspectives on one issue.  Again, the issue remains regarding who can afford to pursue these efforts.  Many of these sites are maintained either by tenured professors, or professors at liberal arts institutions where such work may hold greater value – maybe as teaching, but most likely as a form of service.

Intellectual Activism

Finally, one can be “open” as a scholar as a component of academic service.  But, my own personal interest here is in using it for community service and advocacy.  There are debates about public scholarship within sociology that come and go.  In late 1990s, a push for public sociology was revived by Dr. Michael Buroway, which he advanced during his tenure as president of American Sociological Association.  More recently, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, a sociology professor at University of Maryland and former president of ASA, published a book on intellectual activism.  Collins defines intellectual activism as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.”  At the heart of this is the inseparable connection between activism and scholarship.

There are two components of intellectual activism.  First, one may speak truth to power: “this form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations.”  This is done by developing alternative frameworks for investigating social inequality – challenging dominant and mainstream approaches that overlook certain aspects of social inequality and certain oppressed communities.  Collins’s own scholarship has advanced a perspective to interrogate the intersections among systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, rather than viewing each axis in isolation from the others.  And, such intellectual activism is done within academia.  The second component of intellectual activism is to speak truth to the people – speaking truth directly to the people.  Collins notes, “such truth-telling requires talking, reason, honesty, love, courage, and care.”  This is real engagement, be it virtual or face-to-face, with members of the community.

There are various ways in which scholars may engage in or pursue intellectual activism, some of which blur into a broader online presence; some blur both components of intellectual activism.  As I have already noted, some scholars work to make research findings accessible.  But, not simply to make publications available; rather, they actually make the content understandable in terms of language, and made relevant to the lives of laypeople.  Beyond one’s publications, intellectual activism can entail making academic knowledge in general accessible and understandable.  It can also serve as a vehicle for social justice advocacy, to empower disadvantaged communities, criticize injustice and oppressive practices, and provide commentary on current events.

Intellectual Activism To Change Academia

Beyond serving the general public, or specific communities outside of academia, scholars’ openness – namely use of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media – can serve as a form of advocacy within academia.  There are many examples of online sources of advice and resources for scholars.   For some, social media can be used to foster scholarly communities; for example, the #ScholarSunday hastag on Twitter, created by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega.  Or, it can be used to advocate for change to academic cultures, practices, and norms.

Last summer, I created this blog, specifically for marginalized scholars, where I and guest bloggers write about experiences of discrimination, isolation, and harassment, and offer critique of policies and practices within academia that hinder the careers of marginalized academics. A number of similar sites exist. Some bloggers criticize the adjunctification and corporatization of academia.

Other bloggers aim to increase transparency about experiences and injustices in academia. For example, in October, two women scholars wrote publicly about being sexually harassed by editorial staff at Scientific American.  Dr. Danielle Lee, a Black woman biologist, wrote about an exchange in which she turned down an invitation to be a guest blogger because she would not be compensated.  The editor responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” She wrote about it on her blog, Urban Biologist. And, Monica Bryne, a writer and playwright, wrote on her blog about being sexually harassed by the editor of Scientific American, Bora Zivckovic.  Other women subsequently came forward about being harassed by him.  This brought about a bigger online conversation about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the sciences.

Risks Of Intellectual Activism

Collins notes that demands placed on academics have made this kind of open scholarship a luxury in light of the professional risk – a concern that other scholar have raised, as well.  Unfortunately, some of these risks are either heightened for or unique to marginalized scholars.

First, open access publishing may not “count” professionally as much as publishing in traditional journals.  At best, this is seen as form of academic service, or a personal hobby.  Too much of it, particularly if one does not have the research or teaching record to “compensate” for it, may cost you.  For marginalized scholars, as well as those doing research that remains at the margins of their discipline, open access publishing is an opportunity they cannot afford to pursue.  Let me make explicit here that inequality exists in academia – too often, in the form of discrimination.  So, these scholars often have to work much harder than their privileged colleagues to receive the same rewards like tenure.

This is captured in a blog post, published in August, by Dr. Isis (a pseudonym), a Latina woman tenure-track professor of biology, on her blog – Isis the Scientist.  She pushes back against the increasing pressure to publish in open access journals because such publications may not count as much toward tenure.

Larger than the open access warz, I feel I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities.  I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it.  That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.

She concludes:

To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

This links to my opening comments, that the very initiative to address inequality through open scholarship may actually be having the opposite effect in the absence of institutional rewards and support for open access publishing.  It is too risky for some of us.

Second, there is little institutional reward and support, and it varies by school and department.  There are some instances of blocking scholars’ social media use, or sanctioning it.Earlier this year, the International Studies Association considered a proposal to bar members of editorial boards for ISA journals from blogging, unless it was for the journal.  But, ultimately the organization tabled this proposal.  In addition, Kansas University has adopted a policy regarding social media use in which faculty, including tenured faculty, may be terminated for “improper use” of social media.  This includes any use deemed contrary to the best interest of the university, or that impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.  This was passed by the KU board of regents in December without faculty input, eliciting intense criticism that this reflects a threat to academic freedom.

Third, online presence opens scholars up to criticism, hostility, even harassment and threats.  Unfortunately, this is particularly true for scholars of color and women scholars.  Given the professional and personal risks, many scholars use pseudonyms online.  But, even then, they run the risk of being “outed.”  Dr. Isis, whom I mentioned earlier, was outed by Henry Gee, an editor at Nature magazine, with whom Dr. Isis has had a long feud.

Concluding Thoughts

Scholars’ online presence is quite common.  But, academic institutions lag in rewarding and supporting online scholarship.  Open access is a great direction, but at the moment it is not a one-size-fits-all opportunity for scholars; and, there are multiple ways to be “open.”  The reality is, a scholar can still remain “traditional,” staying behind paywalls and be successful professionally.

I encourage those advancing open access scholarship to be critical of the uneven and, in some cases, unequal, advancement of such initiatives.  But, I am a bit pessimistic that, even as institutions begin to value and support open scholarship, intellectual activism will remain seen as something outside of traditional academic work, and thus unsupported and stigmatized.

My Interview On Social Media Use And The Academic Job Market

In the winter issue of the newsletter of the Medical Sociology section of the American Sociological Association, you will find an interview by UGA sociology PhD student Jessica Seberger with me on social media use and the academic job market.  Jessica, as the Student Newsletter Editor, has been interviewing recent PhDs about their experiences on the job market and in the early part of their career in academia, with a particular focus on using social media for research, teaching, and service.  I was honored to be her latest interviewee!

You can see the full newsletter [download PDF] or just the interview below.

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For my stint as student editor I want to explore how recent PhDs found and secured positions within or outside of academia and how sociologists (with a focus on medical sociologists) connect to others through technology. I intend to explore discussion with sociologists who communicate extensively through Twitter, those who use groups on Facebook as a resource for classroom material, those who have and  maintain personal/professional blogs, and those who contribute op-ed pieces to major news outlets.

For this edition of the newsletter I interviewed Dr. Eric Grollman. Dr. Grollman recently received his PhD from Indiana University and has secured a tenure-track position at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman’s research examines the impact that prejudice and discrimination has on marginalized groups’ health, well -being, and world views. Within the last year he has also restarted a blog he started in graduate school. That blog, ConditionallyAccepted.com, provides a space for scholars who exist at the margins of academia. In the following interview we discuss his new position, his blog, and social media use by sociologists in academia.

JS: You’ve recently joined the University of Richmond as tenure-track professor. What made this position a good fit for you? How was your transition from graduate school to assistant professor?

Dr. Grollman: What I was looking for, on the job market, was a place where a good balance between personal life and professional life was possible. I’d heard this was more doable at a liberal arts institution. I also really wanted to work at a place where there was an acknowledged synergy between doing research and teaching. When I interviewed at the University of Richmond one of the professors whom I met with mentioned that they focused on this synergy, and I was drawn to that. I expected my transition to professor to be a bumpy transition, but making the switch from graduate student to professor isn’t as automatic as you’d expect. I also had plans to be politically neutral my first year but there were a couple of times where I stepped on political landmines that I didn’t know about and I had to deal with the consequences of that. So I was hoping to quietly focus on my work and establish myself but there was still political stuff that I found myself bumping up against.

JS: In the last year you’ve restarted a blog you started as a graduate student. What inspired you to start the blog? Could you tell me a bit about it?

Dr. Grollman: I wanted to play it safe while on the job market so I censored my online social media accounts while on the job market but that self-censorship took a toll. At some point I thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore,” especially at a time when I was starting to see parts of academia that were really kind of ugly and upsetting [note from JS: see conditionallyaccepted.com for more details]. This was all when I was most socially isolated because I was working on my dissertation. So I started this blog where I planned to write about instances of discrimination and micro-aggressions, while keeping myself anonymous. But, I still felt it was too risky to do this while on the job market, so I deleted the blog. After graduating I still felt like there needed to be some space within academia, particularly for marginalized scholars who face these difficult and unfair experiences. I felt like these experiences needed to be highlighted so people can stop suffering in isolation. I found out later that many of my experiences were common, but I didn’t have those stories accessible to me. I hope that with this blog I can have this space where people are telling these stories, and talking about how they navigated through these experiences so we can make these experiences transparent.

JS: How have others responded to your blog within the field of sociology?

Dr. Grollman: It’s hard to gauge. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for someone to say, “Okay, you’re out of here, you’re fired.” So I’m still waiting for that but it hasn’t come yet. Ironically, I came to the University of Richmond thinking that this was a great place for me because no one would give me grief about blogging.  Initially, I still kept it really private, in part so I could gauge the political climate. At colloquy, when new faculty are introduced to the full faculty body, my dean introduced me and said, “Oh, this is Eric Grollman, he’s a new professor of sociology and he blogs, sometimes personal and critical reflections.” My heart dropped because I was being outed in such a big way. I kept waiting to hear if there’d be repercussions to my blogging. So, I asked the chair of my department, “Do you all know that I blog?” and she said, “Of course, it’s so public, everybody knows.” She said that people like it and that it was part of what made me strong as a candidate. That is not what I’m used to. That just reinforced why Richmond is a good place for me. Outside of my institution I have heard good things. A lot of people seem to appreciate it and say, “Oh this is so inspiring, you’re so brave.” So it’s been good overall.

JS: Do you use social media in other ways as a sociologist (for example, in the classroom or at conferences)?

Dr. Grollman: I haven’t figured out how much I want to use it in the classroom and pedagogically. Right now if I want to share links with my students, I’ll show them the link at the start of class. It’s something I’ve been thinking about but I would prefer to do my homework first before I start using it. I do use Twitter to put out teaching questions like, “Hey, people who teach, what would you recommend for ___.” At conferences, sometimes I’ll “live tweet” with other people so others who are not in a session have a record of what was said. Also, using Twitter and other social media has created a nice academic network, even with people I wouldn’t normally connect with at conferences or in person. It has been good in that way, as far as using and sharing resources.

JS: Do you feel compelled to be “on” or professional with your twitter account at all times?

Dr. Grollman: I’ve been trying to figure out what the right balance is. I’ve been feeling too “out there.” I don’t censor myself too much; I post a hybrid of personal and professional on Twitter. It’s just me and what I would say (outside of class). Lately, I’ve been becoming unhappy because sometimes it opens me up to hostility as I become more visible. I’m not really ready to deal with that kind of hostility. We simply don’t have professional norms around how (and whether) to use social media, whether it “counts,” and what protections there are for those who use it.

JS: Some of the topics on your blog are pretty personal. How do you feel about self-disclosure as a sociologist?

Dr. Grollman: I think it’s underrated. My opinion is that our goal seems to be being “objective,” which we know doesn’t exist. In general we seem to discourage using the personal as a perspective, as a support for something. Pedagogically, you can’t ask a human to set aside their humanness to make sense of the social world. If we want to have a conversation about how racism shapes health, it’s unfair and nearly impossible to ask me to set aside my own experiences with racism and my health. (Keep in mind that this is not at the expense of existing research and theory.) Since we don’t put these stories out there, they’re not out there. I think there’s power in telling your personal experience, otherwise we just leave it invisible and pretend that it doesn’t happen. Blogging and Twitter are spaces where I can actually write about my personal experiences. It opens up these new spaces to have these conversations that are for public consumption. My intent is to provoke conversations about these sensitive issues. For example, writing publicly about my struggles with anxiety in graduate school, or experiencing racist hostility from other academics hopefully contributes to a chorus of voices that highlight how pervasive these problems really are.

JS: What advice do you have for graduate students or junior faculty with regards to social media?

Dr. Grollman: I have two bits of advice. The first is to think about the benefits and consequences of using social media. The benefits of it are being open and accessible, inspiring people, or speaking in ways that you can’t in journals or in the classroom. The consequences may be that since it is public, what we do outside of the classroom and in publications may trickle into our colleagues’ evaluations of our work. You have to be comfortable with what you put out there. There are some people who have been harassed, particularly women who blog or are on Twitter, when people don’t agree with what they’re saying. The second piece of advice is to take time to reflect on why you’re using social media. Because we haven’t crystalized its professional value, you have to be intentional and self-directed in deciding why you’re using it and what you want to come from it.

Please Blog Responsibly

In an earlier post, I made my position clear — there are many reasons to blog as an academic.  Let’s be honest, it takes a long time to get one’s research published in as an article or book.  And, despite the amount of preparation (and grading…) that goes into teaching, we really only covering a slice of an entire field or subfield.  And, our scholarship and teaching tends to stick behind paywalls; only those with access to academic journals and only those enrolled in college have the luxury of accessing them.  And, don’t even bother thinking service is can to anything other than your department, university, or discipline.

So, blogging can serve as means to make scholarship, teaching, and advocacy more accessible.  You can complement peer-reviewed journals articles behind paywalls with a short blog post summary of your research.  This is true, too, for teaching (i.e., short post to introduce concepts or review prior scholarship) and service (i.e., blogging as intellectual activism).  Or, blogging can feature aspects of your scholarship or advocacy that are outside of your typical work.

Blog Responsibly!

But, as with any sort of unregulated, non-reviewed, and public writing, academics who blog should seriously consider a few points of caution.  Some of these I have worried over for some time, others are lessons learned from recent events.

It Doesn’t Count.  Unfortunately, there is little chance that your blogging will “count” in evaluation for jobs, tenure, promotion, or other academic milestones.  It does not constitute peer-reviewed scholarship.  It does not constitute teaching.  And, I would guess that few departments would even count it as service.  If it serves as an important part of your scholarship — for me, I stand by it as a form of intellectual activism — it is at least worth finding out whether your department or university would recognize it as something more than a personal hobby.  I am happy that mine see it as a form of service, so I continue to list this blog (as well as my time with KinseyConfidential.org) as service on my CV.

But, It Does Count.  Although blogging may not officially count in your favor, it could unofficially count against you (how about that…).  One’s colleagues and/or advisers may see regular blogging as a cute little hobby, but I fear their opinion about what you write could trickle into formal, “objective” evaluations.  The new reality for the job market is one’s submitted application and anything accessible on the internet is fair game in search committee’s decision-making.  (And, sometimes steps are taken to dig into not-so-public information on the web, i.e., via Facebook networks.) Besides the content, frequent blogging may also send the message that you are “wasting” precious time that could go toward your research.  And, let’s not forget that our students are savvy enough to enter your name into Google and hit “Search.”  I learned early on that I had students who were regular readers of my blogging for Kinsey Confidential; fortunately, they enjoyed my blog posts, and it seemed to add to my credibility in my course on sexualities.

You May Make Enemies.  I have been pleasantly surprised to receive many compliments, praise, and even fan-mail for the (successful, I’d say) creation of Conditionally Accepted.  And, my network of friends and colleagues has expanded through (and because of) my blogging and other social media use.  But, others may begin to take you seriously enough to disagree with you.  This may mean sometimes tense online conversations with other scholars.  Or, you may become the subject of publicly expressed hostility.  Even scarier for me was being called out by white supremacists; that made my heart race a little for fear of any physical harm.

You Might Get Sued.  I knew you could piss people off as a blogger.  But, no one told me you could be sued!  I was not-so-pleasantly surprised several weeks ago to find an email threatening legal action unless I removed text from an old blog post.  No, not copyright infringement style — slander!  (Fortunately, that crisis was avoided.)  I certainly wear descriptions like “provocative” with a badge of honor, but I would never aim to tarnish someone’s name, image, or reputation.

So, I am speaking from experience.  It is possible, so be careful in how you speak about other people, even if you are simply quoting publicly accessible information.  I also recommend obtaining umbrella insurance (that covers civil legal action like slander and libel) if you can afford it.

Stay In Your Lane!  My biggest gripe, the one that has driven almost every blogging battle I have had with other scholars, is writing outside of your own expertise.  With the respect and privilege afforded to PhDs (and, to a substantially lesser extent, future PhDs), I fear it is likely that any scholar’s written words can be taken unquestionably as expert opinion, even Truth.  A few bad apples aside, the peer-review system bolsters confidence in researchers’ expertise.  But, there is no peer-review for blogging.  Besides the pressure not to blog at all, the failure of academic institutions to value it places no other constraints on what scholars blog about.  So, aside from harm to your professional reputation, biologists may write film critiques and English professors could develop new theory on evolution.

I assume those examples are a bit extreme.  But, I have seen colleagues veer slightly out of their own subfield.  Staying safely within their discipline, they begin (maybe unintentionally) speaking as an expert on areas outside of their own training, research, and teaching. what really irritates me is their angered response when they are called on it.  A polite request to “stay in one’s lane,” to allow people with more expertise to weigh in, are met with an effort to teach you a thing or two.  I am not asking to add to the many ways in which “academic freedom” is already constrained.  But, I call for a bit of reflection and responsibility here.  Your public writing carries a certain level of weight and authority as an intellectual.  It may be best to at least preface a post with “I am not an expert on this…” or conclude with links to others’ work or simply let the real experts do the writing.  Frankly, I feel one of the greatest abilities of an intellectual is to know the limits of one’s expertise.

Start Blogging Already!

The aforementioned points of caution aside, I strongly encourage scholars to blog, however (in)frequently.  I know of many pseudonymous bloggers, which allows some level of protection (but, it is not full-proof) for those worried about professional harm.  If you simply want to write a blog post just one — without maintaining your own blog, there are sites (like this one!) that would gladly feature a guest blog post.  And, while blogging is not formally valued in academia, it can increase your visibility as a scholar, maybe even further demonstrate your expertise, and lead to invitations to either cite blog posts or publish them.  So, give it a try — what are you waiting for?!

Other Blogging Resources

A few resources for academic blogging:

  • “Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers” from Just Publics @ 365 (compiled by Dr. Jessie Daniels, who blogs at Racism Review).

Blogging For (A) Change

Should academics blogSome academics are hesitant to do so, but a generation of young scholars — who have been raised with technology — have pointed out many benefits of doing so (and using Twitter).  For one, it presents something other than the traditional format and flow of academic writing.  The freedom (and fun) of writing for a blog can actually help our traditional academic writing.  Also, it presents a medium to transcend the traditional barriers to making academic work accessible.  Earlier this year, I wrote an essay, “Blogging For (A) Change,” about using blogging for intellectual activism (see below).

If you are interested in starting your own blog, there are several bits of advice on the web about getting started And, I am always looking for guest bloggers for ConditionallyAccepted.com!

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I recently wrote on essay on blogging for Remarks, the newsletter for the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association.  In it, I reflect on the reasons why I blog, namely to make academic knowledge more accessible, and my participation in the recent blog discussion on “post-racism.”  Institutional support does not exist to encourage academics to blog or use other forms of social media for their scholarship (yet), so I elaborate on some of the potential professional and personal benefits of blogging.

Download a pdf of the Remarks newsletter here, or you can jump right to the original, extended version of the essay below.  This post was featured as a guest blog post at RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, and captured the interest of Dr. Fabio Rojas who responded with “why activism and academia don’t mix.

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Blogging For (A) Change

To blog or not to blog?  Within the context of the debate over public sociology, which seems as old as the discipline itself, the question does not seem that novel. But, with technology advancing even as I write this, the question does warrant attention.

Still today, much academic knowledge, be it publications or lecture material, is locked within the academy. Individuals who can afford it are welcomed into institutions of higher education to learn basic aspects of any discipline of their choosing. Their student status allows them to peruse whatever academic journals to which their university has purchased access. But, beyond the university, the public has limited access to academic knowledge. And, even those who can access it, like our students, there is little hope (and utility) of gleaning much from the latest issue of American Sociological Review.  Even Contexts articles are behind pay-walls!

On Activism and the Academy

I have wrestled with the ivory tower’s barriers to academic knowledge since the start of my graduate training in 2007. Like most of my colleagues of marginalized backgrounds, particularly scholars of color, I came to graduate school as an activist, prepared to devote my life to making a difference. Still today, I am often frustrated by my naiveté that the academy, by design, is apolitical and “objective.”  The first time it was made painfully aware to me, a professor joked, “oh, we still haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”  No, they still have not.

Unsurprisingly, the value-systems of many academic institutions (particularly research-intensive universities) reflect and reinforce this apolitical and supposedly objective culture. One’s job prospects, tenure-ability, and chances of promotion depend, first, upon one’s research in peer-reviewed journals; then, some attention is paid to the quality of one’s teaching. Finally, one’s service to the department, university, and discipline are given a quick skim. Of course, service never means serving communities in need. (That is what you do in your “free” time.)

Unfortunately, these institutional priorities mirror those of white, middle-class scholars. I suspected this from the start of my academic career. But, I had my “proof” when I saw the ASA presentation, “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions” (see the Powerpoint here).  In a 2009 sample of 1,473 doctoral students, African American and Latina/o doctoral students ranked as their number 1 and number 3 reason to attend graduate school, respectively, to “contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US”; “contribute to my community” was number 2 for Latina/os. The top three reasons for white doctoral students were to “grow intellectually,” “improve occupational mobility,” and “make a contribution to the field.”  All these years of feeling my work was urgently needed to make a difference, while my white colleagues were merely curious about the social world, now had confirmation.

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Intellectual Activism

Recently, I have grown more comfortable in accepting that I pursue change-making through my research, teaching, and academic and community service, and that I do so in an environment that tries to “beat the activist” out of me.  I have been particularly inspired by Patricia Hill Collins’s latest book, Intellectual Activism, which makes such work seem like a given for scholars of color.

Collins makes a distinction between speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people. Indeed, by pursuing traditional academic work, namely publishing research, we aim to accomplish the former. That is, we try to advance research, and even challenge others’ research, to better understand social problems, make visible the lives of historically marginalized communities, and so on. But, such efforts alone could mean that your work never leaves the pay-walls of academic journals. Instead, to do so, we must speak to (and with) those outside of the ivory tower (e.g., public speeches, working with community groups).  (See her Contexts article on these ideas, as well).

The importance of both of these intellectual activist efforts became very clear to me with the publication of my first solo-authored article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Understandably, I was excited upon news of its acceptance. But, from acceptance to OnlineFirst to print and beyond, I kept feeling that something was missing. In fact, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I was underwhelmed. Here, I had achieved the great feat of publishing in one of the discipline’s top journals, and ended up feeling more irrelevant thereafter. Getting somewhat choked up in revealing this to a few friends, I realized I was aching for some sense that my publication would actually matter to the people it was about – marginalized individuals who face discrimination and bear the health consequences of these experiences.

I suspect I will eventually be cited, as many scholars are doing important, novel work on discrimination and health. But, beyond those JHSB articles featured as policy briefs, few outside of the academy will ever see my article. Whereas capturing the media’s attention for one’s research seemed to be the common route to accessibility, I pursued a press release through Indiana University and one through ASA. I am grateful for these opportunities, but, again, disappointed by the outcome. A few sites that indiscriminately repost every academic article picked up the press releases. And, my study was featured in a few Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles.  No small feat!  But, it was not the New York Times attention of which I dreamed.

I considered sending printed copies of my article to non-profit organizations like NAACP, NOW, and HRC. But, I worried that their overworked staff had little time to figure out what to do with it. Ultimately, I decided to devote a guest blog post at Sociological Images to a summary of my article, which I also posted on my own personal blog.

Blogging as Intellectual Activism

Blogging – a form of writing on the internet (short for web-logging) – can serve many academic functions. In fact, at least in the way I approach blogging, it offers a unique space to simultaneously achieve efforts related to research, teaching, and service.  Again, using the example of my JHSB article, I was able to make my findings accessible beyond the JHSB readership (i.e. academics). In addition, it offered an unlimited space to elaborate or clarify. In particular, I was able to strip away much of the sociological jargon that likely hinders readability. In addition, I was able to offer simple bar graphs instead of multivariate models. While expounding upon my research, I also spent some energy to teaching an unfamiliar audience about some of the concepts within my article, namely the intersectionality theoretical framework.

In addition to extending traditional academic work, blogging also presents a space for more “real time” scholarship. One of the constraints of academic work is the lag in doing research to publication to uptake beyond the academy. Years may go by before one sees one’s first citation, and even more before one’s study has some impact, albeit indirect, beyond the ivory tower. As such, sociologists rarely attend to current events in their research.  Though one might find it challenging to pursue, for example, an ethnographic study of the Trayvon Martin murder case, one certainly could devote a five-paragraph blog assessment of the racial dynamics inherent within it. With so much political commentary offered for everyday current events, we certainly could use more sociologically-informed, critical perspectives to make sense of things.

Personal Benefits of Blogging

You may not be convinced by these aforementioned reasons to blog – that it offers a space to make your research and academic knowledge in general accessible to the public. Indeed, there is still little institutional value and support for such work. However, there are other benefits, both personal and professional, that may make blogging more enticing.

Professionally, blogging can serve as an opportunity to connect with other scholars. Though I am physically (and socially) isolated these days as I frantically finish my dissertation, I have been a part of an on-going blog discussion with Fabio Rojas (orgtheory.net), Tressie Cottom McMillan (tressiemc.com), and Jason Orne (queermetropolis.wordpress.com) about the persistence of racism in America, or the possibility that we are in living in a “post-racist” era. In addition, blogging can function as a space to mentor other scholars, or simply offer professional advice. Tanya Golash-Boza (SREM Section Chair) has a great blog (getalifephd.blogspot.com) that is filled with tips for writing and creating balancing in one’s schedule (and life in general). Karen Kelsky’s theprofessorisin.com was tremendously helpful for preparing for the job market.

Following the aforementioned blog debate on “post-racism,” I have also been reminded that blogging has a bit of a liberating effect. Of course, any additional writing tasks are good practice. But, blogging offers a space to write without censor, standard, and fear of “what will the reviewers think!”  Early on, I learned that my academic writing must be undeniably supported by prior research or my own findings. One cannot discuss what they are not measuring directly; “don’t talk about racism – you’re measuring race attitudes,” I was told. In my personal blogging, I can talk about racism – and I often do. As a result, the words flow more easily. I do not stop after each sentence to agonize over what reviewer number 2 will say. And, this newfound ease in my writing extends into my academic writing, as well (even on “perceived” race discrimination in my work on racist discrimination).

Obviously, every sociologists cannot blog, for it may not be a desirable task to add to those overwhelming To-Do lists that actually lead to jobs, tenure, and promotion.  But, I would at least like to encourage those who have been curious or tempted to consider it, even if infrequently or offering a guest blog post to existing blog sites.  There are numerous free blogging sites (e.g., WordPress, Blogspot).  Whether you blog for change, or just for a change of pace, the benefits of doing so may be worth giving up a few minutes to an hour.

References

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2012. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Segura, Denise A. 2012. “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 17, Denver, CO.

Advice For Attending Academic Conferences (For Scholars On The Margins)

In the last couple of weeks, I have been seeing tweets and Facebook posts about academic conferences, including some great advice for surviving these events.  From this buzz, I have been reminded of two things. First, despite the negative aspects of my own graduate training (no program is perfect), I sometimes forget that I am fortunate because of the strength of my training relative to others’.  Some academics are given incomplete (if any) training for preparing for, surviving, and benefiting from conferences.  And, related to that, that many academics are kind enough to publicly share such advice, rather than harboring it for their own and their colleagues’/students’ advancement.

Second, much of my networks are made up of academics!  In between FB posts about babies, jury duty, cats, upcoming weddings, and gripes about work, I see my fellow academics getting excited about upcoming conferences, making plans to meet, and asking for preparation tips.  Indeed, the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) kicks off at the end of next week in New York City.

Enough babbling.  Below, I offer links to advice that other academics have already provided.  And, in this spirit of this site’s purpose, I try to tailor the advice for scholars on the margins of academia.

Survival Tips For Scholars On The Margins

While the above advice is useful for any and all academics, we must be honest about the additional concerns and burdens of conferences (and interacting with other scholars in general) for scholars on the margins.  Though we are told that the “imposter syndrome” fades by the end of your first year of graduate school, we are not told that marginalized scholars may experience it and general self-doubt well through their training and even into the tenure-track.  It continues for many because our competence and  authority are regularly questioned by our colleagues and students.

I would say the best kind of advice, at least that I have received, has been placed in the context of my own life.  For example, I devoured every word of The Black Academic’s Guides to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy because it presented general advice about being productive and staying healthy, but with explicit consideration of the additional burdens that scholars of color face.  (In addition to the book, I strongly recommend joining the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity.  You’re welcome.)  The American Psychological Association’s Surviving and Thriving in Academia also looks useful, including the rarely discussed “what now?” if one is denied tenure (particularly for women and people of color).    We also need to be honest about the dilemmas trans*, queer, bisexual, lesbian, and gay scholars face, particularly around pressure (from the department, institution, or society in general) to hide one’s gender and/or sexual identity.

Ideally, advice for scholars on the margins of academe (and society in general) are tailored to consider these contexts.  Academia is not immune to the social forces of the world beyond the ivory tower.  Yet, somehow we forget that we, too, are shaped and constrained by the society we live in, and end up giving generic advice to one another and holding each other to identical standards of productivity.  Tailored advice includes acknowledging the aforementioned realities — the external burdens of microaggressions, harassment, stereotyping, disrespect and the internal burdens of self-doubt, mental health problems, and fear — and ways to overcome them.  It includes taking care of yourself and seeking support from others who deal with similar challenges.

And, back to more specific practical advice, you may need to do your homework about meeting your needs during the conference.  Ideally, conferences offer child-care, some aid to those who are low-income or employed, accessible spaces and events, and gender-neutral bathrooms.  You may have to ask other scholars about these services (or making due without them if not available).  Also, schedule in some time to do things to recharge yourself: breaks throughout the day; lunches/dinners with friends; receptions for people from your own background or with similar politics to balance the mixed/”mainstream” events; and, exploring the host city a bit.

What strategies have worked for you?