On Thriving In A Small Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Tenure Scholar-Activist Blues

Me - Blue Looking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also:

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

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

Stepping Off the Tenure Track, Pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. I

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

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

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

What If I Decided Not to Pursue an Academic Career?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning My Academic Career

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. (Many of her academic publications are available through open access here). She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and at Patheos. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Feeling Like a Failure

Have you ever looked back and realized that you were grieving, but did not know it at the time?

berkeley_face

My bittersweet return to Berkeley.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a journal issue containing an article that I had published based on my dissertation research. I almost started crying; I felt like such a failure and an impostor, there was no way I could feel good about that publication. Since then, I have written more for Conditionally Accepted about how my expectations and goals around my academic career have been changing (like not working over the weekend, or becoming a sex educator [pt. 1, pt. 2, and pt. 3]). But, I still think that there is a major piece that I have missed.

Recently, I received a bunch of notifications as I logged into Facebook one morning. I had been tagged in a post by a colleague, announcing the publication of a book in which I had published a chapter. This actually caught me off guard. Since deciding go to #altac over three years ago (see pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, and pt. 4 on this), I had carefully pruned my social media presence. I unfollowed colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, keeping connections only with those whom I considered friends, or whose work I was so interested in that it did not matter whether I felt uncomfortable being reminded that I was, by necessity, backing out of the academic job market.

I spent three years applying for full-time jobs before deciding that part-time work was okay for now, and in fact, it was better: I could focus more on writing, which I had always wanted to do, and on sex education, a newfound passion and my career Plan B. Nothing to be sad about, right?

This time, however, when my Facebook notifications went nuts, I decided to dig a little deeper. I remembered how I did not have any publications appear in 2015, which felt weird given that I had made a habit of steady publishing since I was a graduate student. Now, it was 2016, and I had a chapter appearing in a book that I was unutterably proud of which to be a part. The book, about teaching fairy tales, represents something that I am passionate about on several levels: the subject of fairy tales, the importance of teaching as a way to open minds, and the focus on gender and sexuality that I brought to that course in particular.

I was so excited for this book to arrive in the mail, which happened over a week after the Facebook notifications storm. I held it, and snapped some silly selfies with it. Those went on social media, too. And all the while, I thought: why was there a noticeable gap in my publication schedule? Why did I notice in the first place? Why do I even care? I haven’t turned my back on academia forever, but let’s just say that it would take a damn near perfect job to rope me back in on a full-time level.

That’s when it hit me: of course, I would step back from publishing the things I would normally publish. For example, the rest of my dissertation chapters as articles because there is absolutely no reason for me to publish an academic book right now. I did not realize it then, but that was a sign of grief.

Signs of Grief

Of course, I would channel my energy into teaching because I love it. And, I would channel energy into my #altac/sex ed career because I love it, and it uses my current skill set and knowledge base while pushing me to expand in other ways; I can grow it into a career that pays at least some of the bills, maybe someday most or all.

Of course, I had taken a break from doing the types of things full-time academics would do. I skipped attending and presenting at the American Folklore Society meeting last year, for the first time since I gave a paper there over a decade ago as an undergraduate.

Of course, I accepted requests to do peer reviews for journals with ambivalence.

Of course, I responded to well-meaning friends who sent me job postings with terse, polite notes stating that I was not looking for full-time academic work, but thanking them thinking of me.

And, being the stubborn workaholic that I am, I only really stopped trying to do it all in 2015 (the year when I didn’t attend AFS; the year when I had no publications come out), despite ostensibly being #altac for three years now. That is how long it took for me to slowly reach the truth of the matter. I was mourning my academic career, what it could have been, and what it likely never will be.

For over a year now, the part of me that was quietly sad about the future that I thought I had warred with the part of me that is achievement-driven-no-matter-what. And finally, when I learned to let some of that need to achieve go, I was able to be quiet and calm enough to look around, notice the life I created for myself, and feel the sadness that had been present for some time.

I should note that I am not one of those people who mourn easily or quickly. In this case, it took some other life changes to jostle me into noticing how I was actually feeling, as well as the newfound ability to sit still for more than a few moments at a time (thanks, regular yoga practice!).

Why Grieve?

The dream of a tenure-track job that is normalized for many grad students is not accessible to all of us. Yet, for those of us who internalize it as ideal, reaching the point where we can shed it and aspire to other things without feeling like failures is challenging. And because we spend so long in grad school, at least five years and maybe even ten or more, it means we have spent a long time trying on these aspirations, getting used to them, planning how to achieve them. Thus, it makes sense that we would need time to step away from them and eventually mourn them.

I believe that it is normal to feel sad about unmet goals and abandoned dreams. The longer we have spent wanting something, or working toward accomplishing it, the longer we may need to unpack the grief that may quietly (or disruptively) accompany its loss. Yet this is not something that we talk openly about or even make space to discuss. Part of the cruel situation of leaving academia is that when we leave, we leave our communities. Perhaps we still count colleagues as our friends, but the impact of leaving (whether we choose to go #altac or simply “didn’t make it” full-time) is that we often have less access to the community than when we started.

As a folklorist, I know that grieving is frequently a communal process. Look at the worldwide examples of funeral customs, mourning songs, and rites of passage that accompany the end of life as well as other major life transitions. When we process major changes, we tend to do so best with the support of our community. The internet has provided a community for many #altac scholars, but we have not necessarily developed the customs or rituals to help ease the transition and validate the sad or ambivalent feelings generated by occupying a liminal space.

Even with me remaining friends with many of my colleagues, I still had trouble recognizing that I needed time, space, and support to grieve my career. I can only wonder how other scholars are handling this same transition, and hope that they are reaching out when they are able.

The Opportunity

Around the time I was pinged on Facebook regarding the publication of the new book, I received word that I would be teaching at UC Berkeley for one semester. It is not a tenure-track job; rather, it is taking over the classes of a tenured professor while he is on leave for one semester.

I did my undergrad at Berkeley. I will be teaching in the program in which I first became enamored of folklore, and where I was mentored and encouraged to pursue graduate work.

It is a bizarre, temporary little victory: I am returning to the Bay Area for 5 months, and might even make enough money to afford living there. I get to teach in my home discipline, and perhaps inspire some young adults the way I was inspired all those years ago. But best of all, I get to do so with my #altac mentality, my understanding that maybe I won’t land my perfect professor gig anytime soon, or ever, and that it is okay to have some fun along the way.

Will my time in Berkeley help me grieve, or move through the mourning process better or differently, or perhaps even complete the process? As of this writing, on the cusp of the spring semester’s start, I have no idea. If nothing else, I think the experience will help reinforce for me the reality that being #altac does not mean never getting access to prestigious, rigorous, or neat opportunities. But what I have learned recently while mourning what my career was “supposed” to be is that grief is not linear. Just as my career did not follow the track I thought it would, grieving does not follow the simple “do it and move it” pattern that I hoped it would.

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Grieving isn’t fun, and it is even weirder when you do not know that you are doing it in the first place. But giving myself the time to grieve my academic career — even if I just thought I was doing a bad job of churning dissertation chapters into articles — turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Academia may not have made room for me, but I made room for it within myself, in a way that I can live with. That’s been worth the emotional turmoil and the wait. Hopefully I can say the same of my time in Berkeley, come full circle after all these years.

PhDs Of Color, Don’t Accept The Initial Job Offer!

sylvanna_0Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sylvanna Falcón (@profe_falcon) is an associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and affiliated faculty of feminist studies and sociology. She is the author of Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations (U. Washington Press, 2016). She has recently discovered the wonders of yoga and meditation.

You Deserve Better

Over the past few years, I have started mentoring junior scholars, primarily women of color, about how to negotiate tenure-track job offers. This kind of mentoring came about rather organically, as I do not pitch myself as some kind of expert negotiator. But over time I became increasingly passionate about helping others secure better job offers as it started to align with my politics as a brown, Latina, middle-class, antiracist, feminist sociologist.

I became deeply troubled hearing time and time again that academics of color were advised against negotiating beyond the initial offer, to just be grateful about getting a job. Sometimes that advice is coming from other academics of color! Even though resources exist online about how to negotiate job offers, too many people, and recent Ph.D.s in particular, are getting the misguided advice to accept the initial offer, even in cases when they have competing offers from different institutions.

Increasingly, negotiating an offer is seen as a risk that could end in losing the job altogether or that we are being ungracious — or worse, ungrateful. This shift is particularly salient since the Great Recession of 2008, when the academic job market radically declined. Rather than having a plethora of tenure-track jobs to which to apply, such jobs have become scarce and intensely competitive, and many of us are simply unable or unwilling to live just anywhere in the country.

I remember a time in the early 2000s, when advanced graduate student cohorts in sociology would apply for 50 or more jobs; this job mecca was not my experience at all. I went on the academic job market four times, moving from positions as a lecturer to an assistant professor at a liberal arts college on the East Coast and then to a postdoc and an assistant professorship at a research-1 institution on the West Coast.

I would like to posit that our mind-set when negotiating academic job offers has to shift from being grateful that we have received an offer to knowing that we bring value to an academic institution — even in this new job climate. This shift in mind-set directly undermines the gratitude discourse prevalent at neoliberal universities. Why should we be grateful (and hence indebted) to labor for an institution? After all, we worked hard to earn that Ph.D. and receive that offer — facts we quickly forget when we are repeatedly told that we should be relieved to be offered an academic job at all these days. That is not to deny the very real and good fortune many of us have in landing a tenure-track job when too many Ph.D.s are unemployed, in severe debt and/or living the adjunct life. It is always sobering to hear the latest statistic about only 60 percent of Ph.D.s getting tenuretrack jobs in the social sciences and humanities, yet this new normal should not somehow circumvent our legitimate desire to enter a new job feeling happy and respected.

As academic job seekers enter into the negotiation phase for a tenure-track position, I encourage them to embrace three points.

Understand the value that you bring to the institution and your future department, even if you are a newly minted Ph.D. If you accept the job offer, you plan to work at this particular academic institution for the foreseeable future. The students and your future colleagues are going to benefit from your outlook, energy, research, recent graduate school training and knowledge. You will bring renewed enthusiasm to your teaching and research. They extended the offer to you so your future colleagues see your value. Now you should, too.

The offer is yours to accept … or not. I have yet to hear firsthand of a case where someone asked for an increase in salary and it resulted in the offer getting pulled, but there are stories. You are going to hear “no” a lot in academe (so, develop thick skin now), but in order to even get to that stage, you actually have to ask for something. If the offer is not to your liking, then you can walk away. Yes, you can actually walk away! Why should you accept an offer that has not met your standards and expectations? You have a bargaining position that you need to finesse to your advantage rather than be taken advantage of.

However, you have to be an effective and strategic negotiator, meaning that you request reasonable considerations typical of that particular institutional structure. Asking for things typical of a research-1 job offer at a liberal arts institution is not in your strategic interest. It is in your interest to consult widely — online and with multiple mentors — and to give serious thought to what you need in place to excel at that particular institution.

Do not pre-emptively sabotage yourself by not asking for anything. Ignore the advice and reaction from your mentors or other supporters to just sign the initial offer. I have helped women of color negotiate increases in salaries, research funds and course releases after people they trust told them not to ask for anything. I have literally lost count of how many people of color I have helped to negotiate better packages against the advice of their academic mentors. This help has translated to larger salaries for senior positions (by $20,000), substantial increases in research funds (by $15,000) and modest increases in salaries for assistant professors (ranging from $2,000 to $5,000).

Now, you will not get everything for which you ask; negotiations means compromises. But even I have been stunned at some of the aforementioned successes when people of color get serious about negotiations. That is not because I have some inside secret or deft negotiation skills to pass on, but because, with some close mentoring, people of color began to think concretely about what they needed to thrive. The key, I believe, is that they offered an effective explanation as to why they merited these items. Your salary has a chance to increase if you can provide a clear and compelling rationale for the increase based on the value you bring, not because you have a lot of debt. This same logic applies to your research funds, summer salaries and course releases. If you ask for it, you must be able to explain why you deserve it.

With a tight and scarce job market and the trend toward neoliberalizing universities, people of color — especially women — seem scared, literally, to ask for anything beyond the initial offer. You do not want to start a new job from a place of fear or misplaced gratitude. The content of the job offer sets you on a career trajectory. Change your mind-set about the purpose of job negotiations away from indebtedness to an institution and academe. Nurture an understanding of what you need for your well-being and to thrive professionally.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Becoming An Alt-Ac Sex Educator, Pt. III

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she blogs for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

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Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

As a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, I have written about my professional journey of becoming an #altac sexuality educator. In earlier essays, I have described the impact of sexuality education on my academic career, and, in turn, the impact of my academic training on my sex ed career. In this third essay, I write about the pervasive sex negativity that I have observed in academe. The many interconnections of sexuality with life in and around universities should concern all of us, regardless of orientation, relationship status or gender identity.

Sex negativity refers to a mind-set that sex is inherently dirty, dangerous, risky, pathological or deviant. Certain kinds of sex are seen as normal and thus acceptable within the bounds of heterosexual procreative monogamy. Meanwhile, those types of sexual identities, expressions and acts that fall outside the bounds are considered deviant.

In a sex-negative society like contemporary America, sex is seen as an activity that taints the people who engage in it, resulting in stigma for people like single mothers, sex workers, nonheterosexual folks and people who participate in sexuality subcultures such as swinging, polyamory and kink. Sex negativity has consequences for things that are not strictly related to sexual acts, too; exploring a nonmainstream gender identity is also enough to get one in trouble.

Within education, sex negativity plays out in very specific — and very harmful — ways. Examples abound, like this one: a high school teacher lost her job after a student stole her phone and shared a nude picture of her that was stored on it. When I was writing for MySexProfessor.com, I had a tag just for all the sex-negative crap that kept happening in academe.

Here are some of the major manifestations of sex negativity that I have observed in academe:

  • American academe is a microcosm of the rest of America, which can be sexphobic, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic, and we can see these patterns replicated in university norms.
  • Students are regularly held to different sexual standards than instructors, with student sexuality being framed as a problem only when it is excessive or combative, and with faculty sexuality usually being treated as a problem when it is visible at all (especially for women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups).
  • The most talked about sex topic in most universities is sexual assault, and yet actual policies to prevent and prosecute sexual assault are problematic, in some cases minimal and often thoroughly enmeshed in the assumptions that accompany rape culture (e.g., victim blaming, lacking an understanding of how trauma works and so on).
  • The university allows outright censorship of sex topics, as has happened to Alice Dreger, as well as faculty members not being defended when they criticize some facet of the sex-gender system, as happened to Saida Grundy.

And that is just the highlights list. As a sexuality scholar, and as a human who (gasp!) has had some personal involvement with sexuality over the course of my adult life, I have had to tread carefully.

Our time in academe is social, and that necessitates navigating sexuality. I do not mean getting it on in the classroom or office but rather choosing which facets of one’s identity are put on display, if being closeted is even an option. If one departs from the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla norm, then what? For instance, if in the past I have brought a male partner to departmental events, do I have to think twice before bringing a female partner?

Further, the personal and the professional blend in university settings in ways that exceed and contort a scholar’s intentions. When I teach a unit on nonmonogamy in different cultures, am I seen to be advocating for that relationship mode? If I research contemporary sexual subcultures, do I have to think about how it might harm my university’s brand if I am seen doing participant observation at a local fetish night? Surely a scholar who teaches about World War II with interview data from Third Reich leaders is not seen as advocating for Nazism, despite making students read about it and discuss it. But since the way we view sex in America is so pathological, everything about it becomes distorted.

The more time I spend being alt-ac, the less I worry about what anyone thinks of my teaching and research, though I suppose that may be a mixed blessing. If someone wants to take me to task for teaching racy material, well, that is a possibility. As an adjunct, I am extremely vulnerable when it comes to job security. But at the same time, the less that I am wrapped up in the world of full-time academe, the less I feel constrained by these arbitrary norms — by the pressure to be a heteronormative model citizen who looks presentable and does not say things that might offend students or upset the status quo.

One thing that I have learned, and am grateful to have experienced, is that the sex ed community is delightfully accepting, inclusive and sex positive in contrast to academe. I feel safe there to discuss not only whatever sex research I am into at the moment but also anything going on with my own sexuality, gender identification, relationships and so on. That is not because my sex ed colleagues have poor professional or personal boundaries, but rather because we are committed to revolutionizing boundaries that only serve to uphold hierarchies and unjust notions of appropriateness. For all that the university is supposed to be a bastion of progressive thought, free of intolerance and bigotry, I would rather have the vulnerable and more charged conversations with my sex education colleagues than with most of my academic colleagues.

Like most major life transitions, this has been a slow one at times, but ultimately it has also been quite fulfilling. My academic research skills have been a great boon in the sex ed world because, frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there about sex. My habit of saying, “Citation please?” registers as obnoxious at times, but it helps me do my job better. I suspect that being a sexuality professional in a sexphobic culture will never be easy, but the fit with academe is, thus far, going about as well as I could have hoped.

Sex negativity in academe is, I suspect, especially hard on those of us who are not as sheltered by various facets of privilege. I am a woman who benefits from white privilege, yet as an adjunct I lack the job security of someone who is tenure track or administration. The intersection of identities already impacted more by sex negativity (such as gender and sexuality minorities) with sex negativity in academe makes for a mix of prejudices, silences and constraints. My work as a sexuality educator informs my approach to these topics now, and I would advise, as always, that people try to find the right balance of self-care and activism that lets them keep doing good work in the world.

Easier said than done, I know, but simply having this conversation is a great place to start.