My Gender Is A Journey

Denise

This essay was originally posted on my personal site, egrollman.com.

Over a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity.  Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity.  But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.

Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye.  Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.”  He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender.  Instead, she offered him this:

“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”

I see myself in Narkunski’s essay.  And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story.  In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.

My Gender Is A Journey

I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.

For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body

I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.

Me - GI Beyonce

Halloween 2009

At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.

Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.

Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both).  The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.

Rockstar

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences

From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.

I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)

But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.

Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values

My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.

However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.

Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).

The Journey Continues

To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.

Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself.  I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.

On The Conservatizing Effect Of The Tenure-Track

Reverse Tenure

Over the summer, I met with a colleague who works at our university’s Center for Civic Engagement.  We talked about recent and upcoming vacations, life in the city, and finding community on campus.  Eventually, she shifted the conversation to asking how she could better support me as a faculty member, in particular, in helping me to actually utilize the Center’s resources.  Since we first met, back when I interviewed for my current position, she has known that I am activist at heart, and wish to engage the campus and local communities in my research and teaching.  But, now starting my third year at the university, I give the same excuse for not doing so: fear remains a part of my everyday reality as a tenure-track professor.  She understood because I’ve emphasized that I would be slow to adopt community engagement in my work; but, she also asked what, if anything, can we do to change the culture that steers junior faculty away from relevant, accessible, and creative work.

I will acknowledge that my fear and anxiety are on the extreme side relative to the average tenure-track professor.  I readily respond to reassuring statements such as, “you’re doing fine,” pointing out, “but, I’m a Black queer tenure-track professor who blogs critically about the academy.”  My identities and my politics were known to my department and university upon interviewing and ultimately hiring me.  I will admit to a modest amount of paranoia, but I ask that we also be honest that racist and homophobic biases play out in unexpected and subtle ways.  (That is, my paranoia isn’t so unreasonable considering there are interpersonal and institutional factors that actually disadvantage me professionally and personally.)

More generally, I bear the burden of fear and doubt because the institution itself does not explicitly reward activism, advocacy, and community engagement.  I appreciate informally being told teaching a community-based learning class looks good, or that open access research is the way of the future for scholars.  And, at a minimum, there is little sense that such efforts would hurt one professionally (though I remain skeptical when such claims are made regarding activism).  But, formally, these initiatives are not valued; they are not explicitly mentioned in the tenure expectations outlined in our faculty handbook, nor is there a longstanding tradition of favorably evaluating community engagement and advocacy.  As I told my colleague, it’s great that the Center offers so much to faculty who engage the community in their work — even offering a small stipend to those who go through training on community-based teaching; but, short of the institutions explicit valuing of such efforts (i.e., counting it toward tenure), only a few brave souls will venture into them.

Beyond my frustration with the inconsistency between formal values and informal values, I am annoyed at the obvious contradiction between the university’s claims to promote diversity, accessibility, and community engagement and its actual practices.  Like many colleges and universities, my institution has made clear that it wants to change and improve the world; doing so has required changing itself, its mission and values, and its practices.  I certainly applaud the university for the changes it has made, especially within the past five years.

But, short of explicitly supporting junior faculty who aim to engage the community, and promote diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, it facilitates a conservatizing effect of the tenure track.  Absent of messages to the contrary, the traditional expectations are echoed loudly: “keep your head down”; “don’t rock the boat”; “publish or perish”; “avoid service until after tenure”; “be quiet“; “know your place.”  And, besides being apolitical, seen-but-not-heard, publishing machines, junior faculty are pressured to conform to the tried-and-true approach to get tenure.  Thus, on one hand, while touting change and all of their efforts to promote it, universities are also producing cohort after cohort of junior scholars who may avoid making change.  For many of us, this comes after years of “playing it safe” in graduate school.  And, I fear, for many of us, we become so accustomed to conforming and suppressing anything deemed too radical that we simply keep doing so beyond tenure.  I’m not entirely optimistic that radical professors “come out of the closet” the day they receive the good news.

I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into the trap of fearful conformity.  I came in like a lion, roaring that I would only do the tenure-track my way. But, right on cue, I became a meek lamb, obsessing over self-presentation, avoiding certain forms of service and advocacy that I deemed too political or radical, and fighting so hard to stay visible and relevant to my discipline.  Recently, I’ve even grown tired of hearing myself verbalize fear that I’d be denied tenure over what I write on this blog.  (And, really, the joke is on me because everyone seems to know who I am and what I value, but the university keeps inviting me back each fall.)  But, the conservatizing effect will remain for new faculty until universities explicitly value community service, social justice, and advocacy.  Perhaps universities would change a lot faster if they didn’t implicitly pressure faculty to conform and avoid change-making.

Adjuncting And Academic Freedom

Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In another post here at Conditionally Accepted, Eric asserts: “Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.”

Eric writes from the perspective of a tenure-track scholar, though he acknowledges that tenure won’t protect scholars if the institutions backing them withdraw support in the face of public ire. The question of institutional backing is even more hazy for scholars in adjunct positions, like myself.

Adjuncting In The Context Of Academic Labor

As Kelly J. Baker points out, “The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot.”  In order to give some historical context, Baker traces the origins of tenure as a protection primarily for teaching activities, not necessarily research ones: “The AAUP describes teaching as the main work of the university, and tenure became the mechanism to protect teachers from the whims of political leaders, the larger public, and their own institutions. Education was a common good that must be safeguarded.” She advocates for creating a system wherein contingent laborers, like us adjuncts, have both academic freedom and economic security. I would love to have both of these things, but I’m not holding my breath.

Generalizing about adjuncting is tough because we have very diverse experiences. I know that I am not the only one with academic freedom concerns; adjuncts who are also activists have been fired. And as Kate Weber points out, we’re hindered by having a repetitive, overly simplistic conversation about whether adjuncts are “good” or “bad” teachers, when a more apt assessment of the situation would be: “If #highered has to rely so much on underpaid labor, then its foundation is cracked — but not because #adjuncts are bad at their jobs.”

I am in the fortunate position of not letting myself be defined by my adjunct role (neither financially nor in terms of my overall identity).  In fact, it may be better for me to take chances with my public persona because that is the very expertise that I bring to the classroom as an adjunct. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t agonize over academic freedom, or whether blogging about a certain topic in my sex educator persona will be too much.

Controversy And Precarity

I teach controversial topics in my classes, employing what I hope are common sense and empathetic strategies to support students as they confront topics like STIs, sex education, sexual assault, and alternative sexualities. I also blog and tweet (@foxyfolklorist) about these topics in my capacity as a freelance writer and sex educator. My department chairs know that I do this work; my students know, too.  And, if anyone else’s opinion on it matters, it’s news to me.

Despite being a woman on the internet with opinions, I have yet to receive any death threats or rape threats. Maybe I haven’t written anything controversial enough yet, or maybe my writing simply hasn’t come to the attention of the right hatemongers. If and when it happens, though, I’ll face similar problems as the professors whom Eric discusses in his blog post – though without the safety net of tenure. There’s always the chance that my institution decides that the “all press is good press” axiom is not, in fact, their preferred policy when it comes to media attention for their scholars.

In one sense, I’m not in too precarious of a position because I have decided to pursue adjuncting the way it “should” be done (in my opinion): not as a stepping-stone to something better that will probably never materialize, but rather as a way to stay engaged in teaching and maintain institutional affiliation to help me continue to do research. I also don’t do it as a primary source of income. I bring real-world experience and expertise as a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator to the classroom, which, again, is how adjuncting should work in my mind. The poor wages and job security aren’t quite so bad when adjuncting is viewed as something that a real-world professional does on the side in order to bring their experience into the classroom to benefit students. The sheer amount of work it takes to teach a class means that the pay scale remains on the degrading side no matter how you slice it, but since I shifted my view from wanting to eventually get a tenure-track full-time position to stepping back from full-time academia, my experience of adjuncting has been healthier and more realistic.

So from this perspective, it’s hardly a bad thing that I have strong opinions about the miserable state of sex education in the U.S., or that I reblog essays about polyamory at popular sites like YourTango.com, or that I’m interviewed as an expert in articles on how to incorporate BDSM in your love life. I maintain pretty clear professional boundaries by not talking much about my own sex life on the web or in the classroom, even though someday I’d like to see a world where no one is judged for doing or speaking of any (consensual) sex act.

On the flip side, though, the lack of job security that most adjuncts face makes it a bit scary to think and tweet outside the box. If tenured professors are facing more push-back when they exercise their academic freedom, what will happen to adjuncts when we do the same?

Scrutiny And Censorship

As an example, Laura Kipnis published an essay on sexual paranoia in academe. I didn’t care for the essay – but whatever, it’s free speech. Then I read about what she termed her “Title IX Inquisition” [paywall], which included mysterious phone calls, having to meet with people who wouldn’t tell her exactly what the charges brought against her were, not being allowed to have an attorney during these meetings, being taken to task for a single tweet, and so on. That was a terrifying read, and if it can happen to a full professor, what about the rest of us?

The censorship Alice Dreger has experienced (albeit as a part-timer) is also frightening (and relevant for me, since she became internet-famous in part for critiquing the terrible abstinence-only sex ed happening in her son’s classroom).  She astutely observes: “in my world, the fear of offending someone is reason enough to forget about academic freedom.” She asserts that if her contract is not renewed at the end of the next term, it won’t be because of the quality of her work; it’ll “be because what I’m saying is off-brand and might offend somebody.” Is this really how we want our country’s professional intellectuals to be operating? Worrying about losing a job due to their public-facing statements and research not fitting an institutional brand?

Further, it’s infuriating to see the amount of scrutiny that’s happening to professors who write and tweet in attempts to exercise academic freedom in contrast to the extreme oversights happening in Institutional Review Board cases. This NYT op-ede about the medical research mishaps at the University of Minnesota details multiple “ethical breaches, [which] university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing with a variety of underhanded tactics.” This is uncomfortably reminiscent of how many universities handle sexual assault, which is to say, rarely, sneakily, not well, and sometimes not at all.

As the author points out, “In what other potentially dangerous industry do we rely on an honor code to keep people safe? Imagine if inspectors never actually set foot in meatpacking plants or coal mines, but gave approvals based entirely on paperwork filled out by the owners.” It’s bizarre to me that university review boards trust (usually tenured) researchers to carry out ethical research based on this honor code, but don’t seem to trust professors to be ethical in the classroom and in the public eye.

Perhaps what’s at stake is less a scholar’s ethics, and more the potential for unwanted attention based on not only lack of ethics but also anything controversial. After all, how many complaints from an unethical study will have to add up before it comes to the public’s notice, vs. how many student complaints, or tweets from the greater public, can make a scholar sound like a bad person or an unworthy teacher?

Staying An Active Scholar (At What Cost?)

I wish I had some suggestions for how to continue to be active as a scholar in the public eye when one is also an adjunct, but all I’m coming up with is trite advice to be so awesome that they’ll want to hang onto you regardless. At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor pushing that process along. One thing that’s been helpful for me is affirming that my identity remains that of a scholar regardless of my institutional affiliation. I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on digital approaches to fairy tales, “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder,” which was a huge honor. To be deemed worthy of inclusion in a small working group of scholars doing cutting-edge research was great for my self-esteem. However, I haven’t told my institution about my participation in it yet because I don’t know whether they care about my activities outside the classroom.

In closing, I’m curious about whether other adjuncts have thoughts to share here. I know I’m not the only one who makes an effort to stay active in scholarship and the public arena while simultaneously trying to make sure I do the right things to keep my adjunct position for as long as it benefits me.

Sex Researcher Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel In Cosmo Magazine

Sofia Jawed-WesselEarlier this month, Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel (biography at the end of this post) was featured in Cosmopolitan magazine as part of its “Sex Work” series.  Dr. Jawed-Wessel spoke candidly about her journey to become a sex researcher, and the reactions she has received from others along the way (particularly her family).  She has kindly shared with us more about her background and academic career — both of which have made her nervous about talking publicly about being a sex researcher.

See Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel’s interview with Cosmo: “How I Became A Sex Researcher.”

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Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel On Her Cosmo Interview

I am a 31 year old, first-generation Pakistani-American woman who was raised by Muslim parents in Indiana. I also happen to be a sex researcher and educator. Last week Cosmopolitan.com released an interview featuring my path to becoming a sex researcher and I am so honored by the overwhelming positive response (holy crap, 1.2k shares!).

Although my 16-year-old self was giddy about the opportunity to be featured in Cosmo, I was hesitant to take the interview and incredibly anxious when it was released. I feel strongly about my work and abilities, but at the same time, I am frequently reminded that I should not be here. I am not accustomed to publicly, loudly hearing a voice that is similar to my own in academia. I am not comfortable with my own voice. When I go to campus and travel to conferences, I rarely meet others who look like me or have faced the same difficulties and barriers, especially within the field of sexuality. And in my personal life, it’s hard to ignore the embarrassment my parents feel about my career.

But each comment, share, and like on my interview has helped me feel more confident that not only is my work important, but my voice is too. Since last week, I received several messages from young women hoping to make it in academia asking for advice and to share their own struggles. For this, I am grateful to Cheryl Wischhover and Cosmo.  Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and connect with others!

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Biography

Sofia Jawed-Wessel, PhD, MPH is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Health Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Assistant Director of the Midland Sexual Health Research Collaborative. Dr. Jawed-Wessel has a PhD in Health Behavior (2012) and a Master of Public Health (2008), both from Indiana University. Dr. Jawed-Wessel has collaborated on several projects and manuscripts related to women and men’s sexual health including sexual behaviors during pregnancy, sexual functioning after childbirth, condom development and use, the use of sexual enhancement products, sexual pleasure, and pelvic and genital pain in women. In addition, Dr. Jawed-Wessel has taught human sexuality from a sex-positive and pleasure inclusive approach to hundreds of undergraduates over the past five years.

But, Do #BlackLivesMatter In Academia?

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I have publicly written about the (recent media attention to the) crisis of police violence against Black men and boys in the United States.  Why have I remained silent for months?  From August onward, different reasons have come to mind to explain (or justify?) my self-imposed silence:

  • I was a nervous wreck the days leading up to the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco, held just a few days after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  And, while at the conference, there was little discussion of Brown’s death — at least that I encountered.  It seemed, as a discipline and academic organization, sociologists were surprisingly silent about the murder and subsequent riots.  Fortunately, some sociologists were talking about Ferguson, and some were even making a plan to act as sociologists.  Still, our collective action pales in comparison to other discipline’s efforts.
  • My father is a white police officer.  I have struggled to reconcile what I know about the sometimes scary realities of his work life with the everyday lived realities of communities that have been anything but protected and served by police.  I have struggled to separate individual (white) police officers from widespread racist bias and violence in US law enforcement.
  • As protests spread across the US, and hostility toward a legacy of racist police violence reached a boiling point, I continued to remain silent and, admittedly, out of touch.  Teaching three classes, including one new course, while attempting to stay productive in my research, felt too overwhelming to sacrifice my precious personal time.  Maintaining work-life balance is hard enough without national crises.
  • As the body count increased, and the murders of Black men by police officers became remained legal and state-sanctioned, it became difficult to remain focused on my usual professional responsibilities.  How could I carry on teaching about the medical institution (in one class) and research methods (in two other classes) when my mind was clouded with a sense of total vulnerability as a Black gay man in a racist and homophobic society?  When white students challenged me about a few points they had lost on assignments, I thought, “you privileged asses don’t know — they’re killing us!  Fuck your 2 points.”

I excused my silence and, frankly, my self-imposed ignorance about the national crisis.  Anxiety about conference presentations.  Mixed boy problemsRaw pain.  I had reason after reason, excuse after excuse.  Eventually, I was forced to name the root issue: fear.  (Ah, and as the tears instantly began forming after typing those four letters, my suspicion is confirmed.)

Fear

I make a point of talking about current events and new published studies at the beginning of my classes — well, at least those that are undeniably related to the course, and usually only in my substantive courses (e.g., Medical Sociology, Gender and Sexuality).  In teaching Medical Sociology and Sociological Research Methods this semester, I never felt comfortable bringing up the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and … (too many).  These tragedies did not seem relevant to lectures on sexual health, or multivariate analysis, or the decline of medicine, or qualitative data analysis; so, I never brought them up.

I suspect, at some level, I feared that a student would even ask, “how is this related to our class?”  Or, that some would later criticize me on course evaluations for focusing too much on racism (when the course has nothing to do with it).  I have been challenged by students enough for this fear to feel at least somewhat rational.  And, as my own pain and outrage grew, I worried that I was not “removed” enough from the tragedies to have a “neutral” conversation with my students about them.  I knew well enough that the pain was too raw to risk having a (white) student demand to know, “why are we talking about that issue here?”

Eventually, I was presented an “excuse” to even utter the word Ferguson in my Medical Sociology class.  At my university, a forum was held to discuss the Grand Jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson and, by the time of the forum, that regarding the murder of Eric Garner, as well.  I mentioned the event to my class, strongly encouraging my students to attend, but made it clear that I did not want to have a discussion in class about it.

At the forum, I admitted my embarrassment for going almost the full semester without ever discussing the national crisis.  And, I pushed back on the few other staff and faculty who attended to stop implicitly asking why the students were so quiet on the issue and, instead, ask ourselves why we had not provided students the space and resources to discuss it and (if appropriate) to act.  I know I am not alone in failing to discuss these important, urgent events in my classes — not in being afraid to do so (as a pre-tenure young Black gay man) and not in feeling it was “irrelevant” to my courses.

Do #BlackLivesMatter In The Academy?

Do Black lives actually matter in academia?  No and no.  On the one hand, Black students, staff, and faculty are woefully underrepresented in higher education.  Nominal diversity aside, there are too many academic institutions that fail to fully include Black people, to offer equal resources and opportunities, to protect Black people from harm.  On the other hand, Black communities and their contributions to society and history are rarely presented as legitimate, primary areas of inquiry in higher education.  Sure, there are a few courses in the social sciences and humanities that focus on race and racism; but, too few schools even offer degrees in Black, racial and ethnic, or cultural studies (sadly, my own university doesn’t, either).  At many schools, students are simply not afforded academic spaces to frankly discuss race, racism, ethnicity, and xenophobia.

The absence of Black people in academic institutions and in academic curricula are compounded for Black scholars.  Some of us are accepted on the condition that our Blackness is downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased.  We run the risk of losing our jobs or being sued if we dare to discuss racism as a legitimate area of academic study.  We risk being dismissed as researchers for studying our own communities, our work mocked as “me-search” while our white colleagues’ research on their own communities is seen as legitimate, mainstream scholarship.  And, despite our credentials and prestigious position in institutions of higher learning, we would be naive to expect to be treated better than a common nigger once we leave our campus offices.

Since Black lives seem to matter little in academia, I should not be surprised by my own silence about the ongoing national crisis of police violence against Black communities.  The culture of academia fails to prioritize and celebrate Black lives.  So, I regularly feel as though I am defending my right to exist before a jury each time I teach about race and racism.  But, I am further exhausted by attempting to toe the line of neutrality, for fear of retaliation from racist- and even “post-racist”-minded students.  My mainstream academic training, which prioritized prestige (i.e., journal rank), theory, and method over activism, social justice, and marginalized communities, did not include critical race theory or much of anything that made race central, nor skills for discussing current events like Ferguson in my classes.  And, my current institution did not make explicit support for me if I decided to discuss the national crisis in my classes.  (As a matter of survival, I do not assume the absence of explicit hostility or opposition necessarily implies the presence of acceptance or support.) Academia, in general, is not designed in a way that would make such discussions obvious material for one’s courses, whether or not they are explicitly focused on racism.

Can you blame me for being afraid to speak?  Without appropriate training and support to speak up, I knew that doing so would be at my own risk.  And, the question is, do I risk my job by speaking up or do I risk my life by remaining silent?  Whether you sympathize with me, or pity me, or even think I am full of shit, I have blamed myself — and, still do somewhat.  I let pain, fear, and uncertainty prevent me from providing my students one of probably few possible spaces to speak about the national crisis. I contributed to reinforcing the message that race and racism are not worthwhile topics in the classroom, particularly if “race” or some similar term is not in the course’s title.

We Must Make #BlackLivesMatter In Academia

I suspect some may wonder why instructors should talk about Brown, Garner, Rice, and Brisbon in the classroom.  I respect others’ academic freedom and, thus, am hesitant to claim that others should or should not discuss this crisis with their students.  But, there are a few reasons that I think others should consider.

First, we should resist the temptation to see this as a recent, temporary, and isolated series of murders.  Police violence, particularly against Black and brown bodies, is not new, and certainly not limited to these four murders (nor to men of color).  I imagine that there is a sizable body of research on race, racism, and law enforcement that should appease educators who are skeptical to engage current events.  Second, by bringing these conversations into our classes, we may equip our students to be able to connect those events with their own lives and communities.  Perhaps we can further chip away at the myth of racial equality and meritocracy in higher education.  Third, we would be contributing to students’ awareness of events and phenomena outside of our classes, even outside of the ivory tower.

But, facilitating a discussion about Ferguson, for example, is radical.  It is radical to the extent that one is pushing back against the hegemonic academic culture of racelessness or “post-raciality” (which, in reality, is simply white supremacy).  So, doing so likely requires some amount of strategizing beyond, “hey, I should probably mention this really quickly in my class.”  Below I list some ideas, mainly from the efforts of others who were brave enough to act and speak up, as well as some that would, in hindsight, have helped me to feel empowered to speak up:

  • Before you talk about the murder of Michael Brown, talk with other instructors first (or at least friends or family), and do your homework about the facts and timeline.  One danger of talking about Ferguson for the first time in one’s classes is not having thought through one’s own perspective and emotions, and not being prepared to hear possible counterperspectives and inaccuracies that students may offer.  Talking with others at your institution first could help to glean the degree to which you are supported and, implicitly, to garner support in case things do not go well in your class discussion.  Speaking for myself, the regular sense of isolation in academia exacerbates my fear and self-doubt in front of the classroom; I imagine I would have felt more empowered if I had already spoken with colleagues about the events that unfolded in Ferguson.
  • But, do not assume that students are not paying attention; yet, do not assume that they have received accurate facts about the murders, either.
  • See what other academics have done.  Read everything on the #FergusonSyllabus.  And, everything that Sarah Kendzoir has written about Ferguson, MO.
  • Use peer-reviewed literature and books about racial violence in your classes.  But, also consider using readings that feature personal accounts and the voices of Black people, either in anthologies or even blog posts and news articles.  We must go beyond the recent murders that garnered national media and social media attention.
  • When discussing the crisis, make clear that it cannot be thought of in either exclusively academic or exclusively personal (i.e., non-academic) terms.  Our conversations should not become so focused on the aggregate patterns and problems that we forget about the particular victims of racist police violence; but, we also do students a disservice by discussing these individual murders as isolated events, or purely in terms of our emotions about them.  It is crucial to give social and historical context for these events to prevent our conversations from dissolving into simply interrogating victims’ and perpetrators’ backgrounds, biases, and emotional states.
  • Set an appropriate and safe tone in the classroom for any discussion.  Make sure that you feel prepared to address problematic, offensive, or triggering comments that may be made during class discussion.  Upon reflecting on your class’s dynamics, if it does not seem the conversation will be unproductive or unsafe, consider eliminating discussion to either simply lecture or allow students to privately reflect in writing.  Or, simply forgo any discussion at all if you do not feel it will go well or that you are not adequately prepared.
  • Besides classroom dialogue, consider other ways on and off campus, and on and offline, to act and speak up.  But, also prioritize self-care so that your professional livelihood is not jeopardized by the psychological toll of yet another racial crisis or scandal.
  • Help students to connect the the racist police violence that has recently captured media attention to their own lives, including racial disparities in policing and disciplinary actions in schools.  You can also draw on stories of racist police violence in your own city or state that have likely been overlooked by mainstream media (but, perhaps has been covered on social media).

Closing Thoughts

In some ways, I feel this post is “too little, too late.”  What does writing about my five months of silence add to conversations that have ensued since (and long before) the murder of Michael Brown?  At a minimum, I wish to name the professional, social, and emotional constraints I regularly face as an academic.  I am confident that I am not alone in feeling that my supposed academic freedom is undermined by racist academic norms and practices, isolation, lack of support, as well as the resultant fear and self-doubt.  To others who remain too afraid to speak up, you are not alone.

Ideally, I hope to also make clear how academia is complicit in the silence and ignorance that surrounds racist police violence, and racism in general, in the US.  We fail to provide our students with the critical lens necessary to connect what they learn in the classroom with what is featured (or ignored) by the media.  We fail to demonstrate the relevance of academic scholarship to the “real” world, and to take serious topics such as race and racism in the academy.  White students are not challenged to see their own racial privilege, and how their actions and inactions contribute to the perpetuation of racism.  Many Black students do not see themselves on campus or in their textbooks.  This is in the midst of academia’s role in perpetuating racial inequality, while producing a generation of “post-racials.”

Finally, this post serves to break my silence.  I have once again learned the hard way that my silence does not protect me.

Academia: Uncharted Territory

Belle Isle

…to go where no queer has gone before…

There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia.  Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career.  While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define.  The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor.  But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.

The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender.  I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure.  Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example.  Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors).  For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain.  Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.

As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling.  Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others.  Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women.  Women of color know well the status of being a token.  Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever.  While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.

Uncharted Territory

To be completely honest with you, I am scared.  I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search.  Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality.  There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics.  The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.

Strike one: I am black.  I am queer.  I am fat.  (That’s already 3 strikes, right?)  Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism.  Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog).  I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars.  But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.

This is uncharted territory.  That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man.  With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics.  With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways).  But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.

Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available.  On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism.  As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models.  I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today.  At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism.  I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility?  If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?

Paving The Way

I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general.  In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC.  I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program.  After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture.  My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way.  Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.

paving the way

paving the way

While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students.  I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded?  will I ever give the suits a rest?  do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself?  A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless).  Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.

But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark.  I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success.  But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together.  I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security.  But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.

How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors?  Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”?  I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model.  I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general.  I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure.  I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia.  But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream.  I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.

Giving Up On Academic Stardom

Source: thebiosciences.com

I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.

I drank the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”

When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.

The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom

source: teen.com

I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!

Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committee members’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, that I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken queer Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.

Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass all distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my communities.

Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.

When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.  Ok, end of rant.