I Am A Gentleman And A (Militant) Scholar

all me

In my final semester of grad school, I met one of my academic heroes — one of the most critical sociologists of our time.  Those days, I rarely left the house because I was on dissertation lockdown; but, I definitely made a point to see his talk and meet him.  He was invited to our campus to speak about his latest research.  His visit also included time to meet with a small group of grad students.  He joined us a little late and frazzled because of some transportation troubles.  Once settled, he invited us to introduce ourselves and our research interests.  “Hi, I’m X,” the first student spoke.  “I study immigration.”  “With whom?” our guest demanded; “who in your department studies immigration?!”  We nervously giggled.  Given his own research, the grad students who showed up were exclusively race and ethnicity scholars.  And, what could we say to defend the department that has few professors who study race, ethnicity, and immigration?

We all knew what he meant.  It is a reality we lived with each year of our graduate training.  But, what surprised me, and possibly my fellow grad students, was his quick and explicit critique of the department’s lack of race and ethnicity scholars and scholars of color.  I thought, “of course we all know it, but you can’t say it out loud!”  Why not?  He said nothing inaccurate about this weakness of our program.  He did not offer a critique that we disagree with.  So, why did his outspokenness on the “elephant in the room” make me squirm in my chair, at least initially?

Interpersonal Militance vs. Scholarly Militance

As I later reflected on that interaction and my reaction to it, I finally became conscious of a duality in my life I had not fully named.  For our guest, I had expected him to be interpersonally collegial because he was insistent in being academically critical.  He does not study and teach about race; he studies and teaches about racism.  He has broken the unspoken rule that, at least in sociology, one can study race so long as it does not make our white colleagues uncomfortable, or even implicate them.  I learned this distinction, but also that one has to balance this kind of scholarly militance with interpersonal niceness.  And, apparently I had been playing with this duality in my own career.

The tension between these two expressions of militance — the explicit and unapologetic critique of oppression — manifests in many ways, big and small.

A few examples:

Small example: In the review process for my first solo-authored article, I added a few more thank yous and other forced niceties to compensate for my resistance to the reviewers’ pressure to “tone down” my language.  I refused to speculate about what victims of discrimination may do to bring this kind of treatment on themselves.  I refused to delete the word “oppression” from my discussion of intersectionality — the intersection among systems of oppression.  These requests had nothing to do with my argument nor my findings; worse, they were offensive.  Of course, I did not thank the reviewers for these suggestions, but I had to find other places to amp up my gratefulness for their other (helpful) suggestions.

Big example: While on the 2012-3 academic job market, I framed myself as a mainstream sociologist.  I wore a full suit, sometimes even a three-piece, on interviews.  For a time, I deleted my Facebook account.  And, I scoured my blog and Twitter account, deleting posts and tweets that were too radical or militant.  All of this was to compensate for my work on discrimination and sexuality, and whatever reputation had already acquired through my blogging before the job market.  And, though I slighted shifted my blogging to highlight my scholarly perspective and work, I did not completely shy away from criticizing academia.  In hindsight, I realize it was my benefit to whittle the list of potential schools down to those that would appreciate these efforts and this perspective once on the job.

This is my general approach to navigating my everyday interactions with students, colleagues, and administrators.  I make no secret of my politics, including my critique of inequality in academia.  But, I exert a great deal of energy to looking the part of a normative academic and being a “nice guy.”  In my mind, I figure that I buy myself more wiggle room to be critical in my scholarship, blogging, and teaching by easing others’ (potential) interpersonal discomfort.  I suppose some aspect of this is adopting a strategy a family member once taught me: “don’t let them see you coming.”  But…

The Joke’s On Me

While I am comfortable in this approach, I am concerned that 1) it does not work and 2) it is slowly killing me on the inside.  First, let me address the former of these two, related points.  On a number of occasions, I have expressed my surprise to a colleague, advisor, or friend that my politics “were showing.”  A few weeks into my first semester on the tenure-track, I was surprised to find out that my department colleagues — and even my dean — were aware of my blogging (and like it!).  Yes, it seems a bit silly to think academics are not capable of searching for “Eric Grollman” on Google.  I recall being surprised when my advisor suggested, “Eric, you study discrimination… search committees already know [your politics]”.  That leaves me wondering what jobs I did not get because of my politics, and other opportunities from which I have been excluded.

The second issue is that this approach is a form of emotion work.  I devote a great deal of energy each day to forcing a smile, biting my tongue in battles I chose not to fight, and playing the part of a great team player.  In a way, I am suppressing how I actually feel to appease others.  And, in this first year, this includes the suppression of feelings of misery and self-doubt as I project an image of happiness and confidence.  Needless to say, I am fucking exhausted when I get home from work.  The suppression is so (in)effective on some days that I finally make sense of the exhaustion, tightened shoulders, and tension at my temples when I journal — it takes letting how I actually feel out on paper to realize how awful my day really was.

Besides the impact this has on me, some friends and family have pointed out that being inauthentic robs my marginalized students of a role model — specifically, something more than a brown, queer face in a white heterosexist field.  The suit, softened critical perspective, and “nice guy” demeanor send the message to my queer students and students of color that success in academia requires being mainstream and normative — “selling out.”  Certainly, my more astute students have figured me out through the subtle expressions of my “true” self — and, again, any can find out everything through a web search.  But, I send the general message that they can achieve what have if only they blend in with their privileged peers.

Is Reconciliation Possible?

The aforementioned academic hero of mine appears to be one: militant scholar.  I do not know whether he has ever softened his scholarship to compensate for his outspokenness, or vice versa.  But, he seems to have figured out a way to call other academics’ bullshit out both on paper and in person.  But, I have heard, that came at a major professional cost…

Essentially, it seems marginalized scholars have a few options:

  1. Be outspoken in person, calling out your colleagues’ unethical and unequal practices.  But, leave no question that you are a phenomenal scholar by normative standards.  Still, the supposedly objective standards for hiring, tenure, promotion, etc. are not immune to personal feelings and bias.
  2. Do critical work.  Refuse to say you study “race”, for example, because you actually study “racism.”  But, interpersonally, do not give your colleagues much reason to dislike you.  Unfortunately, the supposed objectivity of evaluation standards may work against you in this approach.
  3. Play it safe on both fronts.  Be realistic about discrimination and inequality in academia.  Do not give colleagues a reason to dismiss you, your work, or your teaching.  But, are you ever fully immune to the prevalent practice of discrimination?
  4. Forget all of it.  Never give a second thought to trying to placate your colleagues’ delicate sensibilities.  But, you may pay in a big way.

I suppose the only real option marginalized scholars have is their poison of choice.  Or, you know, you could forgo a career in academia, only to find some other dual-edged sword in another field.  I guess if I am going to have to make such a difficult choice, I have decided to pick the one that lets me sleep at night feeling authentic and liberated.  I am tired of tasting blood from biting my tongue so much.

Academia Is A Warzone

Image Source: CBS News

Day after day, I return to work with the notion that academia is a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment for intellectual growth.  Like many people, I recognize the pattern that greater education, particularly college, is associated with liberal and tolerant attitudes.  Academic institutions, themselves, are characterized (for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective) as bastions of liberal ideals and practices, protected from the world “out there.”

I have been drinking the academic Kool-Aide since my freshman year of college, even once I realized it is spiked with a poison that could slowly kill me.

Academia Is A Warzone

Yes, the title of this post is intentionally provocative.  The language is a bit extreme considering that many readers will think of death, blood, bombs, landmines, war rape, propaganda, and other gruesome aspects of war.  I apologize, in advance, if the analogy is offensive.

But, I would also like to broaden our definition of war beyond the extreme, yet localized and ephemeral image that comes to mind.  In my opinion, to the extent that marginalized groups face systemic discrimination and violence from birth to death, justified by propaganda, these groups represent the severely outnumbered side of a war.  Considering the many ways in which institutional and interpersonal discrimination, poverty, and physical violence impact the health and well-being of marginalized groups, the death tolls of these wars are simply immeasurable.

Academia is not exempt from those wars.  Colleges have excluded women, people of color, and people with disabilities/disabled people throughout history.  Today, discrimination against these and other marginalized groups continues in the hiring and firing of staff, faculty, and administration; tenure and promotion; admissions; wages; and, other institutional practices.  These groups are subject to harassment and violence at the extreme, to subtle, but more routine microaggressions.

And, yes, there are examples that fit the more extreme imagery of war: racial harassment; sexual violence, including sexual harassment; homophobic murder and harassment; transphobic assault; xenophobic assault and anti-Semitic harassment. While these extreme acts seem isolated and rare, they act as hate crimes — reminding other members of these communities of their inferior status and to live in constant fear.  And, they occur along with less severe, but regularly occurring bias incidents: slurs, property damage, graffiti, verbal harassment, etc.

Image Source: Huffington Post

The Academic Fairytale Is Dangerous

Why has it taken over a decade for me to finally acknowledge academia is not a safe, inclusive, liberal place?  When staff in the scholarship program I was in during the first half of college grumbled when I brought up LGBT issues, I should have caught on.  Or, having “GAY” written on the whiteboard on my dorm door.  Or, seeing graffiti about “fags” in the Chemistry building men’s bathrooms.  Or, having several of the flyers my then-boyfriend and I put up to campaign for homecoming court vandalized with “fag” this, “pole-smoker” that.  I guess I knew homophobia would be a challenge — one I came prepared to fight.

With the first racist microaggression I faced in graduate school — even before classes had officially begun — I started to catch on.  But, six years later, now as a new tenure-track professor, I am finally declaring that enough is enough.  When my partner told me he felt helpless to support me day after day, as I come home fuming about some microaggression I have faced, I teared up — well, because he named it: “oppression.”  I know it, and regularly name it myself, but tend to stay just shy of fully acknowledging the reality of my experience as an oppressed person in academia, and the world in general.  My fear is accepting “oppressed” leaves little hope, little room for change.  But, the real danger is in denying how frequent and intense the hostility really is.

I study the health consequences of discrimination — so, I can tell you via research expertise (yeah, I’m saying “expert” — deal with it!) and personal experience that the hostility that marginalized students, staff, faculty, and administrators face is harmful.  In actual “wars” in the traditional sense, it would be foolish to try to reason with one’s opponents, who are armed and out for blood.  You protect yourself and fight back.  But, in buying into the fairytale that academia is safe, humane, and socially-just, we fail to arm and protect ourselves.  We repeatedly fail to psychologically prepare ourselves for battle, leaving us vulnerable to the full effect of every assault.  When attacked, we spend the rest of the day, week, month, semester, year… however long… trying to make sense of how that could happen here, how could they do that.  Unfortunately, this kind of rumination exacerbates the wear discrimination and violence has on our health and well-being.

Image Source: Center for American Progress

Prepare For Battle

I hope that even readers who scoff at the allusion to war recognize that academic institutions are — for some — toxic, hostile, unsafe, and exclusive places.  We do ourselves (particularly marginalized people) a disservice by thinking of acts of intolerance in academic spaces as isolated incidence, rather than manifestations of larger systems of oppression.  And, we fail to make efforts to prepare ourselves.

So, here are some suggestions:

  • Purge the idyllic, utopian vision of academia from your mind.  No place on earth is free from prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  Even if we disagree about how bad things are in academia, I ask that you at least acknowledge that there is room for improvement.
  • Acknowledge the high, pervasive levels of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence within academic institutions.  Since it may be easy to discount the extreme stories that capture the media’s attention as isolated incidents, look for a source that keeps a record of these events — and then inflate the numbers, as these incidence are severely unreported (and mishandled).
  • Develop a plan-of-action to cope on a regular basis and for less frequent, but more extreme incidents.  I keep learning the hard way that I cannot go to events and meetings on campus as though I am privileged, freed from exposure to bias.  For new, unknown terrain, as well as spaces I already know to be hostile, I should 1) never go alone, nor sit alone, 2) have already established a team-effort to handle bias, and 3) have a prearranged time to debrief afterward.  This could prevent being blind-sided by offensive comments or actions, being shut-down and thus unable to speak up or out, and having the rest of my day emotionally derailed.  I should be meditating when I get home, but I at least try to journal to get toxic thoughts and emotions out so I can enjoy the evening with my partner.
  • Seek out allies, and not just in the predictable places.  I have found a great deal of support inside and outside of my department, including members of the university staff.  I have more in common in experience and values with people of color, queer people, and other social justice-oriented people than sociologists, or even academics in general.  Also, these outside perspectives can offer a new way of looking at a problem, or even entail “dirt” you would not get from insiders.  Here, I emphasize quantity (i.e., have at least a few allies in different places) and quality (i.e., meaningful connections with trusted friends and colleagues).
  • Consider ways to support others as they go to battle.  Check the academic fairytale in your colleagues and students.  I do not mean to force your perspective or to burst their bubbles; rather, do not let others deny or discount their own exposure to discrimination and harassment.  Affirm others’ experiences are real and unjust — at least to the extent that they have the right to feel what they feel without explanation.  If you can, offer other forms of support.
  • Teach marginalized students how to survive in academia.  A friend and colleague in student affairs has twice asked me what I am doing to teach my students survival skills.  Wow.  What a thought, right?  I still do not have an answer; my focus has been on affirming marginalized students’ existence and experiences, but never at the level of teaching survival skills.  As I develop syllabi for next semester, I will have to think about this, though it may take years to do so effectively.  By design, the content of college-level and graduate-level education barely reflects the lives and perspectives of oppressed people.  When reflected, we often get as far as highlighting that they are, indeed, oppressed, but fail to talk about how they are surviving, thriving, remaining resilient, and fighting back against oppressive structures.  So, this is an ideal, at best, for now.
  • If necessary, keep a personal record of acts of intolerance, particularly if there is a repeated source or perpetrator.  If things become severe enough that you have to seek justice or protection through some institution or external party (e.g., EEO, human resources, the police, Office for Civil Rights, an attorney), it may be useful to have a record.  And, you may need one or more witnesses to confirm your reports — maybe bring a colleague or friend along, or speak with someone else privately, hopefully to get them to start taking note in the future.
  • Consider speaking openly about your experiences.  This may help to affirm others’ experiences, and remind them that they are not alone in facing systemic, pervasive discrimination and harassment.  It lets potential allies know that these kinds of events do occur, hopefully, encouraging them to take note and act.  And, it can dismantle the cloak of silence; it can shift victims’ silent suffering to the public shaming of perpetrators of discrimination and violence.
  • Fight back.  At a minimum, be involved in your academic community to 1) be visible as a marginalized person, ensuring that your voice is heard and 2) create change.
  • Stay healthy and well, in general.  And, if a particular environment is too toxic to stay healthy and productive, you may need to seriously consider leaving, moving elsewhere, or taking temporary leave (if possible).  As I have said elsewhere, try to avoid going to places that are obviously toxic or hostile.  Unfortunately, self-care is a deeply political act for marginalized people within environments dead-set on destroying them.

What strategies have worked for you to survive in academia?

Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong.  It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting.  Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”

Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom.  Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.

But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion?  Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?

Tolerate Intolerance

Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes.  The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students.  One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes.  One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views.  Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them.  In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.

Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:

I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.

Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions?  I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter.  Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom?  I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc.  But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?

The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc.  If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material.  I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion.  And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”

Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective.  For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course.  So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between.  But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams.  I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.”  On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.

Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors

Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves.  (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.)  So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators.  But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.

First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate studentsSpecifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes.  Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world.  Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”

“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”

It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools.  For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance.  And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students.  Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.

Academic Freedom, Right?

With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors.  Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people.  If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job.  And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”

[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination.  But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution.  In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away.  Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations.  These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.

Freedom From Intolerance In Academia

At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms).  One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence.  This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“).  Yes, that is true for our democracy.

But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment.  Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview.  It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.

Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus.  This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion.  This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus).  We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class.  Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.

Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety.  “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors.  Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!).  I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.

Recommendations

  • If academia recognizes scholarship by  and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.  At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors).  Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.”  (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
  • In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia.  This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
  • Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity.  That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
  • Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door.  Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture.  Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
  • Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us!  Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
  • Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people.  It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.”  These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
  • Develop a safe zone/space training program.  I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people.  As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community.  The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
  • Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities.  First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people.  Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression.  Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men.  Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.

Resources For LGBTQ Academics

On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

Want To Be Successful? Just Publish, “Dude”!

A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research.  In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time.  Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect.  Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.

So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”

Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It

Um, hello?  “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).

“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].

If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men.  This is for two reasons.  First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing.  An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man.  This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster!  pick up your feet and run!”  So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.

Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take.  Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression.  “Don’t do that — that’s girly!”  “Man up.”  “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.”  Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.”  I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.”  So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.”  Then, you will really be successful.

The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out

Is that a read?

And, another thing!  This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819).  That is 182 biologists around the world.  Yes, that is a small sample.

Let me dig in a little more.  These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818).  Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university.  So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status).  Tenure status was not considered.  The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.

Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818).  Order of authorship was ignored.  Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored.  Other journals were ignored.

To Be Fair

Let me stop there.  My intention is not to trash the authors’ work.  They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses.  What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets.  In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample.  Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:

It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.

By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.

The take-home message: publish early, publish often.

To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research.  However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.

A Personal Rant

The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic.  That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities.  The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place.  This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].

This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs.  Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter.  I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people.  The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline.  Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men.  Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position.  But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.

But, I did start publishing “early.”  I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth.  Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years.  That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.

What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place.  Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students.  One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program.  That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.

If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues.  But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places.  For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia.  Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.

Take-Away Point

The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].

Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring.  Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background.  This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable).  And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality.  For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market.  (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)

But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together.  Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings.  We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms.  It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors.  And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.

On Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Academia

The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone.  And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.  But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem.  The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership.  So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.

Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School

Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender.  In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings.  Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color.  But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day.  The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time.  One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings.  And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.

And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty?  One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color.  These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity.  However, you may be trading comfort for marketability.  A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs.  Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring

Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  But, problems remain.  Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.

For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women).  And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.

When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.

And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:

[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.

So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).

But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices.  Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions.  Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion

Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.

The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it.  During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure.  Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”

I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.

Racist And Sexist Climate

Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities.  It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.

[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.

In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.”  For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty.  And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.

No Better, No Worse

I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities.  Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy.  Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.

Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities.  Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation.  While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them.  But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities.  Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.

I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion.  This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out.  For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates.  There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs.  I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down.   My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.

Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in.  Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond).  These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down.  And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.

The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.