One Reason To Consider Saying “Yes” To Service

Image Source: HuffPo (http://huff.to/MwaapI)

There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student.  As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way.  And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia.  (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.)  I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.

But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever?  Here, I do not mean  — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews.  What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups?  Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?

Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.”   At least three reasons.  And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”

Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)

I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work.  Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV.  I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world.  But, even my weekends are spent recovering.

Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service.  I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers.  I miss talking about something other than academia.  (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.)  I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.

Scholarship In Action

Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research.  But, our students are a select (privileged) group.  And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated.  And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom.  Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful.  But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms.  Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!

Feel Appreciated And Respected

Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place.  “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me?  there must be a mistake!”

An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class.  The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia.  That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception.  Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations?  Wow!

By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations.  That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing.  Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place!  People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined).  I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute.  I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals.  At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives.  I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities.  Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist.  Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.

Conformity is overrated.  And it is bad for science and higher education.

The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia.  I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!).  And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).

Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia.  But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia.  I am referring to those who willfully do not see them.  Let me give a few examples, big and small:

  • Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around.  Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much.  Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
  • Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market.  And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations.  Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
  • Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations.  “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?”  Both times, I had to look away and count to ten.  Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
  • Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work.  In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!).  I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department.  Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
  • Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it.  What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers.  Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued.  I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline.  For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school.  Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals.  But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
  • Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation].  Want the most career options?  Select a white man as your dissertation chair.  Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia?  Hmm, that probably is not a white man.  So, what do you value more — your success or your survival?  Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee.  Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc.  But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
  • In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged.  At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia!  Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”  “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  “How could she be racist?”  Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more!  Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability!  non-generalizable!  selection effect!  At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?

Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse.  We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces.  And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged.  Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.

This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer”  Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it.  At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness.  In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement.  We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.

I Souled Out

Around this time last year, a few friends and colleagues — those with whom I was not as close — continued to ask about the outcome of my academic job search.  “Oh, how nice!”  “Where’s that?”  “Are you excited to go there?”  To put it politely, my decision to take a job at a liberal arts university was not without push-back from my department.  Though I stood firm in my decision to accept a job at a department and university I liked, that is close to my family, and that presented the closest thing to “balance.”  But, I could not help but feel a bit defensive against any sort of question regarding my decision.  Even to a simple, polite, “oh, I haven’t heard of University of Richmond before,” I automatically explained my reasons for choosing it.  It was as though I felt I needed to justify myself, to convince others that I was not a failure for not taking a job at a Research 1 university.

The notion that “it’s your life!”, even articulated begrudgingly by those who pushed hard for me to “go R1,” has — so far — proven true.  Life goes on.  Fortunately, it is going on with me in a place where I feel content.  The funny thing is fighting to make a career decision that best suited my needs (professionally, health and well-being, politically, family) has shifted to being told that I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a job (period). I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job.  I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job after one year on the academic job market.  I am lucky to be a professor now at 28, having gone straight through high school, college, and graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Lucky?

I have already heard the line that 80% of what occurs on the job market is beyond one’s own control.  Who knows what search committees want, what departments need, what Deans tell them they want, and how universities operate in terms of hiring?  I definitely buy that.  But, considering the prevalence of discrimination in the US including academia, I resent the assertion of luck in my success.  Yes, let me rattle off my oppressed identities once again.  I am a fat Black queer scholar who studies sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, and discrimination.  No matter my efforts to “soften” my public image by deleting blog posts that might be too radical or militant, much of it was still out there and easy to find.  Search committees were not beating down my door to offer me a job.  And, those interviews and job offers that I received were a reflection of 80% that is beyond my control, 20% my publications, teaching experience, and committee’s letters — and 15% selling out throughout my graduate training.  Telling me I am “lucky” is both insulting and a perverse view of how hiring decisions are made in academia.

I Souled Out

Let me think for a moment to see if I can pinpoint where it began.  Like many kids with aspirations for college, and college students with aspirations for graduate school, I was involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and aimed for high grades.  But, all of that felt like the hard work and sacrifice that was necessary for anyone.  It was at the start of my graduate training when I realized I needed to start sacrificing who I was as a person in order to be successful.

I suppose the need to trade off bits of my soul in exchange for professional success first crystallized in my second semester.  I attended a talk in my department on public sociology, and was disappointed by the speaker’s approach to make sociology publicly relevant and accessible.  I came filled with rage, hating graduate school so much those days because racism had reared its ugly head right within one of my classes — on the first day, nonetheless.  I wore a gawdy, baggy hoodie to signify “don’t fucking talk to me.”  And, it worked.  Blackness — specifically Black rage and Black militance — stood out, and seemed to make others uncomfortable.

I went to the National Sexuality Resource Center‘s (at SFSU) summer institute on sexuality that year, and was given life that I needed so badly at that point.  I met queer people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and of different academic stripes, who shared my passion for social justice and inclusion and my critical perspective.  I cried at our award ceremony at the end of the summer institute because I did not want it to end.  In between sobs, I said that I wished my fellow institute participants were my grad school cohort.  I returned to grad school that fall ready to make it work, but on my terms.  So, I got my tongue pierced.  I noticed furrowed brows from one of my professors; I suppose saying something was out of the question, but facial expressions can say much more.  I took it out that same day.

Grad school knocked me back on my ass that second year.  I was still miserable, still debating whether to leave or transfer to another program.  That winter, I got sick while visiting a friend.  After a couple of days, feeling a bit better, I went to visit other friends.  I suppose I was not as well as I thought.  I completely missed a red light and hit a car going through the intersection.  Fortunately, there were minor bumps and bruises, though both cars were totaled.  I was staying with my parents for the holidays… and it was their car I wrecked.  My mother was not happy with me.  But, she set her anger aside because she had to care for me — I was sick once again, and now had a badly injured hand.  Feeling so helpless over those remaining days of winter break changed something in me.  I returned to my grad program knowing that it was my job to make the training work for me.  After a year and a half of misery, I decided it was either time to change the situation to stop being miserable or just leave.  Why waste any more of my life?

Making it work, at times, meant selling out.  I said goodbye to any clothes that could be read as “too Black,” “too urban,” “too thuggish,” or “too militant.”  I worked at being more patient with people who were not the most open-minded, accepting, or understanding.  I stopped resisting advice from professors, which, admittedly, at times simply meant appearing more open to their suggestions.  I slowly shifted into what I saw as the “good little graduate student.” And, it paid off.

  • I solidified my use of quantitative methods, given its valued status in my department, and sociology in general.
  • When applying to graduate schools, I decided on sociology over gender, women, and sexuality studies programs; I figured I could get a PhD in the former and get a job in the latter, but never the other way around.  Then, I was discouraged from pursuing either the gender studies or sexuality studies graduate minors; instead, I made research methods (read: quantitative methods) my minor.  I also decided on social psychology for my qualifying exam, not gender or sexuality as I actually wanted.  So, besides a couple of courses, my graduate training is squarely in mainstream sociology.
  • I continued to move toward marketing myself as a mainstream sociologist — one who is within a major subfield but happens to study a particular population.  That is, I learned that studying LGBT people was not enough; one had to be a medical sociologist who focused on LGBT people.  That is exactly how I marketed myself when applying to jobs.
  • Socially, I pushed myself to interact more with those I saw as “making it.”  How were these people going through the same program as me but without ever feeling miserable?  Unlike the professional changes I was making, this did not last.  These people were not miserable because they were not marginalized in the same ways as me (or at all).  Unfortunately, this meant that they were unwilling to hear my complaints, or seemed to dismiss other students like me as responsible for their own misery.

Recovering My Soul

How far I had gone in selling out became apparent just in my last year of grad school.  I sat on a panel about diversity in grad school and, more specifically, the challenges that certain students faced because of their marginalized status(es).  A student in the audience, to our surprise, vented about all of the compromises they made to survive, and times they bit their tongue instead of challenging racist comments from their classmates.  Their reflection struck a chord with me.  Wow, how much of my own soul have I given up, compromised, or hidden in order to get ahead in my career?

I definitely see it today.  As I look at my CV, I see few publications on sexuality — the very thing I went to graduate school to study.  A colleague even remarked his surprise that my primary line of research is on discrimination and health; as much as I talk about sexuality, teach courses on it, and publicly write about it, he assumed sexuality is my primary area of research.  My students, too, note their surprise, seeing two shelves of books on sexuality compared to half on health and half on discrimination.  As I looked for paper awards in sociology to which I can apply, I realized I am eligible for those in health and none on sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body.  Some days, I do not even know who I have become professionally and intellectually.

I am still carrying on with suits and ties in an effort to “blend in.”  This semester, a few former students noted that they sense I have my “guard up,” that I seem nervous or uneasy at times, leaving them to wonder who I really am.  I am sure I have also made certain comments that piqued their interest in me enough to even think about these things or to notice.  But, as open as I have been about making certain decisions about how I present myself, and it seems everyone knows, the joke is on me apparently.  What good is a disguise if everyone knows it is a disguise?  For my own well-being, it seems it is time to let go of this strategy because it is not helping and actually takes a toll.  And, increasingly, I am seeing that attempting to blend in is doing a disservice for my marginalized students.  Some seem to want me just to be me so badly because there are no others who are (exactly) like me.  Why deny them that?  Oh, right — tenure.

But, to my surprise, I am finding that I have joined a place that already knew who I am (it seems silly to think you can hide who you are when you have had an online presence since the start of grad school) and likes who I am.  I was in job market-mode when i interviewed, so I was not fully conscious of the comfort I would feel politically.  But, I do believe, at a semi-conscious level, I made a note of that benefit of this job (over others).  I chose this job because I can do critical work, serve the local community, and blog (even about academia!).

Tenure

Concluding Thoughts

A part of me wonders whether I would even have this job if it were not for the ways in which I souled out.  Would I have been forced to stay in graduate school longer?  Would I have fewer publications?  Would I have been forced to teach more because I never received external funding?  Would I have stayed miserable, maybe even dropped out of graduate school all together?  Would I ever get a tenure-track job?  Pessimism here is very tempting…

It is also tempting to say that I sacrificed in such big ways, it all paid off, and I lived happily ever after.  But, I do not want to offer that as the moral of the story.  I do not want to send the message to other marginalized scholars they can be successful with just a little hard work and selling out.  If anything, I will accept that I made certain sacrifices to get ahead so that I can change that narrative.  Ah, yes, and that serves as yet another vote for being authentic and comfortable where I am now.  I see myself as no role model to my students if my success exists solely because of the ways in which I souled out.

I am not alone in making sacrifices to advance my career.  And, this happens for marginalized folks outside of academia, as well.  My point here, though, is to highlight that it does occur in academia.  The implicit message sent is that success is narrowly-defined, which usually means that marginalized folks must work at downplaying their marginalization, their Otherness, to fit in the mainstream definition of success.  Sometimes the messages are explicit, like the gender policing I have witnessed or experienced firsthand to “encourage” grad students to present themselves in masculine(-ist) ways.  At times, it seems you have to choose the (limited) ways you can embrace difference, criticism, or militance because there is a threshold that one should not exceed if you want to be accepted at all.

It is my hope that speaking publicly about this, and regularly maintaining conversations like this publicly through this and others’ blogs, will highlight what many marginalized scholars face in their training and careers.  More optimistically, I hope that these kinds of demands cease, that one’s unique social location, interests, and perspective are embraced rather than seen as inconsistent with traditional or mainstream scholarship.  Pessimistically speaking, as tenure-track jobs become scarce, and people of color and women are overrepresented in contingent positions, I fear the pressure to conform and sell out will only increase in the years to come.

Reflections On Departmental Division Of Labor By Psyc Girl

psyc girlPsyc Girl is an Assistant Professor in Agricultural Psychology, her pseudonymous niche.  She regularly blogs at stressful times for psycgirl on her journey (the good, the bad, and the frustrating) toward tenure.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@PsycGrrrl)!

Below, Psyc Girl reflects on the lack of even distribution of service in the department, and the consequences of this imbalance for her and her colleagues’ careers.

psyc girl’s cycle of collectivist angst about unbalanced workloads

Members of academic departments can be roughly divided, I believe, into two groups: Those who one would define as collectivists, and those who one would define as individualists. Collectivists value interdependence, and are likely to see the well-being of their in-group as important. Sometimes the group is even more important than their own individual needs. Individualists, in contrast, are more likely to value their own well-being, achievements, etc.

It seems to me that the collectivists in academic departments are those who are more likely to engage in administrative work, volunteer to do things even if those tasks are not reflected in their official designated workload, and to help someone else even if it means putting their own needs on the back burner temporarily.  The individualists are more likely to decline tasks that are not reflected in their official workload, prioritize their publications and items that will translate into lines on CVs, and to put their own needs ahead of the group or department.

Anecdotally, the collectivists around me seem less likely to have the publication records (and thus the salary) of individualists. It seems that the characteristics possessed by individualists are those more likely to lead to “success,” as it is often defined in academia. (Anecdotally, again, it also seems that the collectivists vs. individualists seem to reflect the women vs. men in many departments, but this is not a post about gender.)

I’m a collectivist. The individualists around me have caused me a great deal of grief during my journey on the tenure track so far. I’ve done tasks that have not been reflected in my workload, taken on administrative work that needed to be completed (and completed well) by someone, and my intensive mentorship style with my students probably slows down my publication record even further. Taking on many of these tasks frees up the time for my individualistic colleagues to focus even more on their own research.

My coping strategy with this “unfairness” has oscillated between two options. One is to say “Fine then. I’ll check out and focus on my research, too.” I see a lot of people around me taking the “fine then” approach. The problem with this approach, however, is that I don’t find it rewarding. I feel guilty. Tasks don’t get done in the manner they should. I’m not happy. I usually respond to these feelings with my second coping option – throwing myself into the work, telling myself no one will ever change, and eventually burning myself out. This makes me feel incredibly powerless. (And then I start again with “fine then.”) I end up locked in this vicious cycle of engagement, burnout, cynicism, disengagement, and guilt. In the meantime, my individualist colleagues have probably been working away, with no guilt whatsoever. Not only are the collectivists dealing with less time to dedicate to their research, via their personality style, they also have to work under the psychological cloud of this cycle – which can be exhausting. It exacerbates my inability to focus and produce research.

Recently, I needed some help with something, professionally. On paper, it wasn’t something that should have received any help from those around me. But, to my surprise, I received multiple offers of assistance. Helping me didn’t garner any lines on my colleagues’ CVs. They helped me because they respect me, they value me, and because several of them are my friends. I was surprised to discover, from this experience, that I do have power: I have social capital.

As an untenured junior faculty member, it is easy to feel powerless. It is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that almost every other member of my department will vote on my tenure application. I feel particularly powerless when compared to my individualistic colleagues. In fact, I often feel like a fool working away on administrative tasks while they publish twice as many papers as I do each year. As a result, their salary creeps up more quickly than mine and by the end of our careers there might be a large gap between our incomes.

Suggestions For Change

Lately, however, I’m doing okay – I’ve got the collectivist cycle of negativity on hold. I can’t guarantee these tactics will work for other scholars, or that they are all even possible in other contexts. Below are the strategies that have worked for me.

At The Individual and Interpersonal Level

  1. Acceptance (Part I): Yes, the system is set up to reward the individualists amongst us, and yes that system should be changed. But it isn’t something that I’m going to be able to change by myself, and it isn’t something I’m going to change this week.
  2. We need to be having conversations about the broader impact of this tendency. Who is doing the most administrative work? Who is “taking advantage” of the system? Are women doing less of the work that shows up on CVs and more of the grunt work? Minorities? And how are we going to change that, over time?
  3. Decide what is important to YOU.  It’s hard to know how to get from point A to point B if you have no idea where you want to go. What do you need to do, to focus on, to work on, in order to close your office door at the end of each day and say “I did a good job, today.” Maybe that doesn’t match with what your individualist colleagues find important. That’s okay. It’s also okay for this to include tenure requirements!  Apply this phrase as needed: “I would love to do more of [task X]. I really need to focus on getting tenure right now. After that, I’m all yours!”
  4. Acceptance (Part II): When I evaluated what is important to me I realized that being liked, respected, and having friends at work are all more important to me than extra lines on my CV or having the same salary line as my superstar colleagues. In my department those people are quite isolated. Being isolated would make me miserable!
  5. Regularly evaluate what you are working on – what can be dropped? What are you doing out of your “should” beliefs? What is not actually required of you? One of my colleagues is infamous for taking on no-recognition tasks that probably don’t really need to be done.
  6. Recognize that when you take on a task that shouldn’t fall completely on your shoulders, you are choosing to do so, and you are preventing one of your colleagues from doing that task. This further rewards the individualists for not picking up those tasks!
  7. Set boundaries. My individualist colleagues do it, and I started doing it too. I’m no longer giving away my writing time for meetings, I’m no longer overloading myself. I’m doing what I need to do for tenure, and what I need to do to accomplish #3.
  8. Last, recognize that there are other ways to get power besides publishing a ton of research. My power comes from my social capital – but as someone raised in the “publish or perish” culture of academia, it never occurred to me that this was helpful. Find your own place of power, and use it – don’t assume the only way to have power is by publishing.

At Department Level

We also need to be having conversations within our departments, where the cycle is unfolding. There are respectful, tactful, and powerful ways to say “I think I’m doing a disproportionate amount of work here.” Here are some possible outcomes of talking:

  1. Your colleagues might not know what you’re up to. Sometimes the individualists say “I didn’t realize you were doing all that. We should definitely share it more.” Don’t be resentful in silence, assuming your colleagues even know what you do, let alone that they are actively taking advantage of you.
  2. This cycle might not actually be occurring (or is not as bad as you think). After having conversations about workload in our program, we realized we’re more balanced than we thought.
  3. At the department level, years of this conversation have led to us considering “non-traditional” accomplishments as reasons for a raise. In fact, we now have a policy dividing our raises up into those for research and those for teaching, and we attempt to hit the same ratio of these each year.
  4. You can get some backup.  In my program all untenured faculty members get an annual review meeting with our department chair. That’s my spot to say “I’m doing X and Y, and I don’t think I should be yet. What do you think?” My department heads over the years have actually been quite supportive of balancing obligations to the department and individual progress.

My Survival Vs. My Job

Tenure

One Friday, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up tired and a bit grouchy.  I cannot explain how, but I had a feeling the day was destined to be rough.  Now teaching everyday except for Friday — three classes, including two on Tuesdays and Thursdays — I am typically extremely exhausted by Friday.  But, I have yet to reach a week’s end where I could take Friday off from work, or even do light, mindless work.  With a new course prep, if I do not get a decent amount of work done on Friday, I am setting the stage for a panic-filled Monday followed by more days of stress, and another exhausted Friday.  Did I mention this semester is kicking my ass challenging?

But, I digress.  I logged into Facebook one last time before leaving for work finally.  There I saw a picture of a Black History Month themed display at my university’s dining hall:

Dining Hall Display

The cotton and bale of hay…  What about this display is a celebration of Black history?  What about this features the accomplishments of Black Americans, or aspects of Black culture?  What the fuck about this is a celebratory moment for Black people in the US?  Yes, cotton — makes me think of the most oppressive and violent period in American history for Black people: slavery.

I saw that a colleague had posted the picture, taken from a student who posted it on Twitter earlier in the week.  But, I decided to ignore it.  I had not seen it for myself nor was I willing to make a special trip to see it.  And, let’s be honest, I immediately felt this was not a matter I could fight as a pre-tenure professor.  But, the major reason was I simply did not have the emotional and spiritual capacity because I was already bogged down fighting other demons.  I had to muster up enough energy just to go to work.

Choosing Your Battles; Or, Racial Battle Fatigue

As the day went on, the bizarrely racist dining hall display increasingly bothered me, like a slow-release pill.  I braved a smile as I chit-chatted with my colleagues about usual department matters.  I spoke with one about being productive and politically “safe” as I progress toward tenure.  Something about that colleague’s advice — that everyone’s tenure decision is political and uncertain, so you really cannot help but to be stressed for seven years — yanked the last shred of hope I had for the day.  I almost walked away upon hearing it, but forced myself to carry out the conversation.  When I returned to my office, it took every ounce of my energy to stay seated and keep working rather than collapsing into a ball on the floor to cry.  I should have taken Tyra Banks’s advice: just let the cry out and get back to work.

But, what was there to cry about?  Oh, that I cannot shake the feeling that I am slowly sabotaging my own career with every provocative tweet and blog post.  That, maybe even at the end of this first year, I will receive a letter instructing me to clear out my office and seek new employment.  For all of the positive feedback I have received on my blogging, I still hear a voice that says something bad will happen if I insist on publicly, vocally criticizing academia.  Another way to put it is that I do not have a clear, external gauge for my standing at the university, and I will have to wait until my third year review to find one, though annual reviews may help, too.

By late afternoon, I returned to the dining hall display of nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.”  Still, I did not feel comfortable voicing my concern without having seen it, and did not want to make the trip to see it.  So, I asked my tenured colleague to voice a complaint, and made clear my hesitation as a tenure-track faculty member and, frankly, that I already felt depleted from other battles.  Fortunately, a number of people had already spoken up and the display was removed.

My Survival Or My Survival?  (But, not both…)

This incident highlighted a tension that I had not named for myself until now.  On the one hand, I could speak up, emphasize the hostility to Black students, staff, faculty, and visitors that is conveyed by a display reminiscent of enslavement.  That is, I could take an action to fight for the survival of my racial community.  On the other hand, I could keep my mouth shut and “play it safe” as a junior professor, opting to avoid making enemies across campus.  That is, I could chose inaction for the sake of keeping my job — my survival as an individual.  Choosing to speak up (anti-racism) or shut up (job security) were my two opposing options.  Do I focus on my survival (as a Black person) or my survival (as a professor)?

And, there it is.  Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academia.  Everyday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival.  Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus.  By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars.  Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus.  Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival.  And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.

Unfortunately, my actions have consequences for my partner and family, as well.  That means there is an additional layer — feeling selfish or reckless — each time I put my job on the line for the good of my communities.  I would say once per month, I ask my partner, in essence, for permission to be myself.  In that I fear professional consequences for blogging about academia, as well as other forms of advocacy on and off campus, I convey to him my worry that my actions could ultimately hurt him, as well.  If I were fired before even going up for tenure for seen and unseen political reasons, we would both suffer (e.g., loss of income and benefits).

Every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind to eliminate the blog and start all over as a “safe,” silent, apolitical tenure-track professor.  To just teach my classes and churn out publications.  And, wait until tenure is awarded to become vocal and critical and involved in social justice work.  Yes, then I would be safe.  Right?  Because all scholars have a fair chance at tenure, right?

I would not be safe.  Every tenure decision is political.  So, I have two choices: play it as safe as possible, all at the expense of fighting for my communities’ survival; or, speak up and out against injustice, potentially being labeled radical, “activist,” uppity, militant, or even a liability.  I am doing my damnedest to balance the two paths.

“Another Blow” — Essay By Contingent Faculty Member On The Endless Academic Job Search

In the anonymous essay below, a contingent faculty member writes about the frustration of an endless search for a tenure-track position, as well as the financial woes that many contingent faculty are all too familiar with.

“Another Blow”

I guess I could see a case being made for the fault being entirely my own.  After all, I got my hopes up—again.  No matter how much I try to tell myself that this time, when I mail out that cover letter, CV, and scanned copies of my transcripts, I won’t care, one way or the other, I still end up caring. A lot.  Especially in a situation where I feel so perfectly suited to fit the needs of the job.

overwhelmedonlyIn any interview situation, I always feel like the pimply-faced geek asking the cheerleader to the prom.  I never quite feel like I’m going to appear good enough for the position, even though, rationally, I know that I am. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am a gifted, dedicated teacher; a competent scholar, interested in a wide range of scholarly topics and issues; and a “good soldier” for the department, cheerfully performing whatever tasks are assigned to me.  I can get along with just about anybody. I am not judgmental, confrontational, or hostile, nor do I have one of those “prickly” personalities that takes offense too easily. I am not a plotter and schemer, I am constitutionally incapable of deception or manipulation, and I am not stubborn or lazy.  I have a positive outlook on life and the people around me, always believing that they are basically good. I applaud my colleagues’ successes and commiserate with their losses. I do my work, and I do it well. My students, the vast majority of them, respond well to my teaching and go on to lead happy, successful lives. I believe in their abilities, while holding them accountable for their contribution to their own educations.  I want them to be satisfied with their own learning and their grades, but I do not sacrifice my integrity, or the integrity of the educational process, in order to manipulate that outcome. I make positive, substantive, and supportive contributions to any department and any school I am a part of.  I do not know what more any department could ask of one of its members.

But, the truth of the matter is, for whatever reason, a reason that has escaped me for years and continues to elude me, none of that gets communicated in an interview.  Now, mind you: My mother despaired of me when I was child, because in spite of her best efforts to teach me, in her words (and the words of my grandmother, and probably her grandmother before her), to be “gracious and lovely,” I still managed to come off to others as graceless, tactless, mannerless, blunt, rude, and insensitive. I say stupid things that betray my intelligence. I say the wrong things at the wrong times, sometimes hurting people’s feelings without intending to.  I put my foot in my mouth.  I ask questions that have obvious answers. I come off as clumsy and clueless.  I babble, or allow my train of thought to drift way off topic.  I seem to have no internal sensor, no warning bells, and no internal “mom” who can give me the “eye” from across the room to signal me to stop, go forward, or turn left.  I have no angel sitting on my shoulder, guiding me with gentle persuasion.  I am clueless and guideless.

And if that were not bad enough, I also for some reason that has also eluded me for years, come off to some people as arrogant and self-congratulatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am my own harshest critic, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my lack of internal sensors.  After any interview, I often re-play the entire thing, second-guessing every word, every gesture, every sigh, every ill-advised laugh or answer to a question. Once the hoped-for invitation to join the faculty does not come, then I launch myself into endless rounds of more second-guessing, followed by even harsher recriminations.  It is agonizing.  If I knew what I was talking about, I regret my own confidence, fearing it was interpreted as arrogance.  If I talk about past successes, I review them with a harshly critical eye, chastising myself for presuming to pride.  It seems, no matter how successful I have been in the past, if that phone call does not come, it all amounts to naught but pain, anguish, and intense disappointment.

Rationally, I know that hiring anyone on the basis of a couple of interviews is a crap-shoot, at best.  Other people seem to have perfected the skill of misrepresenting themselves.  The interviewers must be unable to see through practiced artifice.  They may, in fact, make the worst possible choice, but be unaware of that fact for many months. And then, it seems, it is too late to correct their mistake. And of course, it is entirely possible that they hired exactly the right person, and that was not me.

It is also entirely possible that I was mistaken in my judgment of the job, the department, the school.  I am always reminded of the cliché about being careful what you wish for since you might actually get it.  It is possible that I could have been the wrong choice for them, or they could have been the wrong place for me, after all.

But it is also entirely possible, and highly probable, that I was the person who should have gotten the job. And it is that possibility—coupled with the heartfelt certainty that I am absolutely right, and I have lost out on yet another incredible opportunity because no one can see, or that I was unable yet again to convince the hiring committee of, the “real me”—that haunts me.

And so I remain where I am. In a job I got, most likely because, through a happy convergence of circumstances, I did not have to interview for it.  I had the credentials and needed a job, and they needed to hire an astounding number of instructors at once, and could not afford the time it would take to interview large numbers of people the traditional way.  Sometimes, I torture myself and read the biographies of the tenured and tenure-track professors that are posted on the department’s website, where they talk about their interests and their latest research project.  I then think to myself, in my low-self-esteem moments, “Well, I guess I am right where I am supposed to be: in a low-paying, no-status, work-horse job I have to re-apply for year after year, with no guarantee of future employment, especially if my students suddenly decide to turn on me, since most of our jobs are significantly influenced by student evaluations.”

But in my heart of hearts—that same heart of hearts that tells me that I am great teacher and a good person—I know that I can do better, and that I deserve better.  Apparently, though, what I am really unable to do is convince anyone else of that.

And so I remain in a job that barely pays the mortgage, does not allow for a second car, and that causes tense moments when the student loan payments are due. I continue to write papers and send them out, many being accepted for publication, just because that is positively thrilling to me.  I do not, however, feel any pressure to do so, or pressure to be diligently revising my dissertation and trying to convince a publishing house to take a chance on me. I just write and publish because I like doing it.  I do not have ideas for new book topics on my hard drive, or outlined chapters of those books, or whatever it is that publishing professors do. I have ideas for murder mysteries floating around in my grey matter, along with a script for an updated filmed version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and there’s that unfinished Star Trek novel, too

I teach my classes and grade my papers.  I do my committee work.  I go to meetings, sometimes.  I speak to the department chair casually, in the elevator or the main office. He, however, does not know me well enough to call me by the shortened version of my name that my friends and family call me—he uses my full name. I suppose I should be grateful that he even knows my name at all.  I continue to get summer school assignments that help with the bills, and I keep getting re-hired. Yay. And my students love me. And I love them.  Thanks be to god.

And so I remain.

 —Anonymous,
toiling in an annually-renewed contingent position
at a Top-Tier R1 institution, year 10;
have stopped applying for other jobs.

Navigating Difficult Dialogue In The Classroom

Before the semester started, I attended a workshop on effectively navigating difficult dialogue in the classroom, co-organized by my own institution (University of Richmond) and another nearby college (VCU).  The bulk of the three-hour long workshop seemed to revolve around microaggressions that occur in the classroom; but, the overall goal was to build our toolkits as educators to recognize them and hopefully diffuse them, and understand what happens when we fail to do so.

Psychologist Derald W. Sue and his colleague define microaggressions as “[b]rief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273).  Such experiences have various negative consequences for marginalized individuals who may face various microaggressions throughout the day.  As Dr. Sue and colleagues highlight in other work, they may also produce difficult, tense, unworkable dialogue when they occur in the classroom.

Below are a few strategies we discussed in the workshop to prevent, recognize, and diffuse microaggressions that occur in the classroom:

  • Set a tone of inclusion, safety, and respect from the beginning of the class.  One specific strategy is to allow the students to develop a set of ground rules that will be used for classroom discussion for the semester.  Some good examples that we, as workshop participants, came up with include: use “I” statements (speak for yourself); avoid interrupting others; avoid passing judgement; minimize defensiveness; confidentiality; there are no “stupid” questions; take note of others emotions to gauge (dis)comfort.  From personal experience, this worked great in a class of 11 students, but does not seem as significant in my class of 24.  I suspect an important step even before this one is to clearly define what discussion looks like in one’s class, particularly given the (large) size.
  • Pay attention to classroom dynamics.  Has a student’s body language changed from calm to tense?  Or, engaged to disengaged?  Has a student that usually talks often become silent all of a sudden?  Do students change their chosen seat in the classroom after sitting in one place for sometime?  (In other words, are they avoiding another student, or maybe moving further away or closer to you?)  Is a student with otherwise perfect attendance suddenly absent after a class that seemed odd or tense?  Some of these, hopefully, attune you to difficulties and tension that arise right away so that you do not see lingering effects in the next class meeting or thereafter.
  • Take an active, not passive, approach to addressing microaggressions when they occur.  This means continuing to actively facilitate classroom discussion rather than allowing the students to take over.  Even if you are uncomfortable, refrain from changing the subject or becoming silent all together.  As much as possible, contain your own emotions in hopes that you can deal with them after class.
  • Another strategy to consider before the semester even begins is becoming more comfortable with the course material, but also (even if not related) talking about issues of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination.  You should not rely on students to respond in certain ways or to speak as experts on behalf of their own racial or ethnic group.  I personally struggle with this, sometimes (wrongly) assuming that certain students will offer a critical view on some issue I bring up; sometimes, students will surprise you by taking a different view or remaining silent all together.  While this, on the surface, makes sense as the responsibility for the lone instructor for the course, I also understand the constraints we (especially marginalized scholars) feel.  We worry about being intensely challenged by a student or disrespected, or about being dismissed as “biased” or prejudiced.  And, we worry how this will affect future classroom dynamics, course evaluations, etc.
  • Challenge microaggressions directly.  Ask deeper questions that encourage students to name and examine their underlying assumptions.  Remind students of the ground rules that the class set at the beginning of the semester.  If the comment is not even relevant to the subject, let the students know (while also signaling that the comment was hurtful or offensive).  If the incident was serious enough, deal with the student(s) directly after class.
  • If relevant, cover microaggressions in the class.  This will familiarize unfamiliar students, and may help marginalized students give name to these subtle yet pervasive experiences.  It will provide students with a common language and conceptualization to use in class discussion.
  • When a microaggression occurs, make sure to acknowledge the (potential) victim(s), as well.  Effectively diffusing such incidents is partly work to address the perpetrator (intentions, assumptions, learning from one’s mistakes, learning how others were hurt) and partly work to address the victim (emotional/social/physical responses, lingering impact).  One of the major pitfalls is the insult of not having one’s existence, experiences, and emotions validated following the injury of a microaggression.  Students of color, for example, may be further silenced following a racist microaggression if the instructor fails to signal that they are aware of it and that someone was hurt by it.  This, of course, does not mean looking at students of color and asking, “you’re Latina — how did that comment make you feel?”  Maybe it is best to ask the entire class how they felt, and explicitly naming that some people of color may be hurt by such comments.  It is not enough to accept what may feel like shallow comments from well-meaning white students.

Also, the organizers have kindly agreed to let me share the overview of [download PDF] and notes from [download PDF] the workshop.