Pursuing Tenure As A Survivor Of Sexual Assault Suffering From PTSD

Note: this essay was originally published on our career advice column featured on Inside Higher Ed (here). The anonymous author is now a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college.

Surviving Rape and PTSD in Academe

I came to my current institution as a sexual assault survivor. A newly minted Ph.D., I had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Together, they transformed the most ordinary tasks into overwhelming obstacles.

I experienced everything that a first-year professor experiences: the daunting task of creating new classes, the dizzying dance of whether to go hard or soft on my students, the effort of forging collegial relationships and the search for friends and community in a new town. And yet I was also in pain, lost amid a whirlwind of flashbacks and panic attacks, hypervigilance and battered self-esteem.

I only confided in one friend about what was going on. The social stigma surrounding rape was such that I worried others would reject and isolate me if they knew. Certainly, the daily news was full of stories of the price women paid for naming their experience. I was also deeply afraid that I would lose my job and my colleagues would see me as a hazard, rather than as someone deserving of their support.

Being hypervigilant meant that there was no place in which I felt safe, least of on all my new campus. Raised voices — even the general, positive hubbub of students in class — led me to dissociate. Loud noises would cause me to panic. Sometimes I could not identify what triggered me but would experience sensory processing difficulties all the same. Every day was a battle: to get out the door, to prepare for class, to be the professor that my students needed me to be. I was constantly exhausted, anxious and fearful that someone would notice the cracks at the heart of my being.

Every aspect of my job proved difficult, but research most of all. Archival work required that I get in my car and drive for hours to a city far from my rural home. It required the confidence to talk to archivists and the wherewithal to be around people without feeling unsafe. It required concentration that I did not have, self-assurance that I had long since shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my performance was affected. My pretenure review went badly.

By then, I had finally found a therapist who had delivered my diagnoses, and I decided that I should tell my colleagues and dean what was happening. When I did so, one member of my department reared back and exclaimed, “I don’t need to know that sort of thing!” I left their office frightened and ashamed. Another colleague decided my PTSD was to blame for my lack of response to their unsolicited line edit of a paper I had submitted with my file and chided me for letting my illness get the better of me. A third colleague neglected to warn me of a film’s graphic rape scene in a class we were teaching. Intensely triggered, I completely shut down for the next two days. The dean expressed sympathy about my PTSD but told me to just push on through. I could take an extra year on my tenure clock, they offered, but urged me to gather up all my willpower and do it in the original time I was allotted.

No one said, “I’m not sure what PTSD is — let me educate myself.” No one said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “We’re concerned about you.” No one said, “How can we help?”

It came as no surprise, then, that my institution handled student sexual assaults poorly. Stories burned through campus: the survivor who’d been told to think about how her attacker felt; the young woman who was counseled not to make a “big deal” out of things by demanding redress; the several students who were sent from one campus office to the next with their reports, no one believing it was their responsibility to deal with the situation. When one incident blew up into a campuswide issue, faculty members came together to take action. They decided that they should write a letter saying they opposed rape. I asked what the letter was intended to achieve, since no one, surely, would come out and say they advocated for rape. I didn’t get an answer.

What my colleagues did not see was that we were all complicit in the rape culture of our campus. By not demanding real change — clear policies, accountability and consequences for violent actions — we implicitly said that rape was acceptable, public letters notwithstanding. And I was struck by the fact that the same colleagues advocating for the letter were the colleagues who had refused to accommodate my disability or treat me with empathy and respect. I began telling more people that I was a survivor, naïvely believing that my colleagues’ response to sexual violence would perhaps change if they personally knew someone who had been raped. But it didn’t. If anything, it weakened my position. It would not be the first or last time gossip on the campus charged that I was acting out of victimhood and should not be indulged.

I privately contemplated suicide, although it was teaching that saved me. As I sat on a campus bench one morning, eating yogurt and tallying reasons to live or die, I realized I was close to running late for class. I went to the classroom out of a sense that it was necessary to show up, to be present, to listen to what my students had to say. By the end of class, I could see my situation clearly enough to call my therapist and admit how bad things were. I didn’t tell anyone at my university. Again, I was afraid that I would lose my job.

I got tenure on the regular tenure clock — an achievement that even now feels surreal given everything that I was battling. I was elated when I heard and when a friend said, “You did all of this with PTSD.” And then I got angry at the fact that I had had to meet not only the explicit expectations of publications, good teaching and thoughtful service but also the implicit ones: I would do so as if I were neurotypical, rather than someone with a disability protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was expected to make tenure without necessary accommodations for my success, safety and well-being. An extra year on the clock would have helped. Expecting me to teach fewer new courses would have helped. Allowing me to submit documentation of my disability to the faculty in charge of tenure review would have helped. But most of all, if I had received other people’s understanding, I would have been a healthier colleague and teacher all around.

Cause for Hope

Happily, my personal recovery accelerated after finding a therapist who performed a technique that, month by month, replaced the feelings of terror associated with my traumatic memories with calm and coping. That, along with the increased security of tenure, encouraged me to out myself as a survivor to my students. By then, aided and abetted by word of mouth and an unofficial network of survivors who recognized one another, I knew too many people who had faced the withering indifference of their peers, professors and administrators when they tried to articulate the pain of having survived a sexual assault. I wanted to show my students they were not alone and that it was possible to survive and even flourish after experiencing such hurt.

A turning point arrived unexpectedly. On the campus, resistance to seeing rape culture for what it was eventually spilled out into the debate about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings coddled already spoiled students, argued some of my colleagues. No one would protect students from “real life” after college, so why should we do it now? Art was supposed to be a place where students could process their feelings, not hide from them. Science was allegedly a field in which sexual assault had no bearing on the subject of the day. As article after article about our “coddled” students made the rounds on the faculty mailing list, I stepped in to give a first-person account of what typically happened when a person with PTSD was triggered. For the first time, I had colleagues who responded positively, who heard what I was saying and took it into account as they decided where they stood on trigger warnings themselves. I was hopeful.

Student activism also gave me cause for hope. Empowered by the revamped Title IX process under the Obama administration, students demanded change in our institution’s policies and procedures for reporting assault. They demanded that the campus become a friendlier place for survivors and tirelessly articulated that those who had been assaulted were not somehow to blame if they later developed symptoms of PTSD. It was this activism that gave me new language for my own situation. Such efforts allowed me to see clearly that I was not a burden on anyone unless the system that surrounded me was broken. When our workplace demands that we be something other than we are in order to carve out a place for ourselves in the academy, the problem is not us but rather the workplace itself.

I continue to heal. It is not so much that I grow stronger everyday as it is that that strength demands less active labor on my part to be realized. I have always been strong, as have all survivors. The idea that any of us are overprotected and overindulged is a lie told by individuals comfortable in their privilege — be it the privilege of never being assaulted or the privilege provided by their power and position to ignore the very real pain of those around them. There are surely people, too, who cannot yet speak up or speak out, whose indifference is a mask they must adopt to survive the effects of the trauma visited upon them. I hope they find a more welcoming academic home than I did.

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.


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.