(Trying To) Start Off Right… And Real

In a post I wrote for Conditionally Accepted, I reflected on my struggle to be successful in academia (i.e., play it “safe”) while being authentic, fulfilled, and happy.  There just seems to be an imperfect balance between success and ______ (fill in the blank: authenticity, happiness, well-being, having a life).  The better I get at being an academic by traditional, normative, safe standards, the more inauthentic, underwhelmed, and unhappy I feel.  But, doing the things that are true to my passions and that make me happy take away time from those activities that will grant me tenure.

There is no known script for academics like me.  And, the threshold of being just happy and authentic enough without risking one’s job, credibility, or status is never clear, nor is it universal.  So, I stand at the start line of a lifetime of experimenting.  Today’s example:

UR LGBTQ Campus Life Newsletter, October 2013

UR LGBTQ Campus Life Newsletter, October 2013

Ah, yes, a public, campus-wide announcement (at least to the LGBTQ newsletter subscribers) that I am queer and proud.  Helllooooo Richmond!

The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul

I am inspired by Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.”  In it, she writes about taking control of her life while she was on the tenure-track, rather than letting tenure control her.  If you have not read it yet, do so right now (you’re welcome) and then don’t forget to come back here!

There is some great reflection that I suspect will be useful to tenure-track academics with young children.  But, I feel the essay is missing other important contexts that are omnipresent in the stories of marginalized scholars: prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, harassment, double-standards, invisibility, hypervisibility, tokenism — just to name a few manifestations of oppression in academia.  There is a good chance Nagpal faced some of these realities herself, though not addressing them explicitly in her essay.  So, a great way to repackage her essay to scholars on the margins would be to infuse the experiences relayed in Presumed incompetent and the advice from The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul.

A 7-Year Experiment

Of course, as a brand new assistant professor, I do not have a story of the tenure-track without the stress (in the contexts of racism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression).  But, rather than telling my story after I receive tenure, I offer my story while pursuing tenure without the stress.

Consider this my 7-year experiment.  Beginning today, I have decided to work toward obtaining tenure without compromising my health, happiness, authenticity, or politics.  I will reflect on my experiences over the next seven years so that others may learn from my successes and failures.  Yes, I am putting myself on the line to test this hypothesis: can marginalized academics win tenure “without losing their souls”?

Starting Points

First, I should note that I feel relatively comfortable embarking on this experiment for the world to see because I accepted a position where the tenure requirements seem doable.  So, a first step toward pursuing a stress-free life on the tenure-track is placing achievable tenure expectations as a top priority for a job, rather than letting the school’s prestige dominate the list.  Yes, I do want to be challenged, and the expectations are high enough that I cannot do research or teach once in a blue moon.  But, I struggled with anxiety long enough to forgo signing up to be challenged at anxiety-provoking levels.

I can also tweak Nagpal’s own guidelines to fit with my journey toward tenure without losing my soul:

  1. I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  2. I stopped taking advice.
  3. I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  6. I found real friends.
  7. I have fun “now”.

1 — I printed out a similar little note that says “This is a 7-year postdoc.”  But, I am inclined to see this more as “I am a professor at this university for at least 7 years.”  This is my reward for six difficult years in graduate school, plus four years in college.  My time in graduate school entailed many instances of remaining silent, or censored, or deferential — even when I saw injustices or was the target of a microaggression myself.  I learned to present myself, my work, and my perspective in “safe”, apolitical, and mainstream ways to get ahead.  Why be silent, censored, and subservient for another seven years?  I worked hard for my freedom (the PhD), and I have my “papers” to prove it.  My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.

2 — “I stopped taking advice,” especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations, or, at a minimum, clearly do not have my best interests (as a whole person) in mind.  Upon hearing the awful, and sometimes oppressive advice throughout graduate school (“remind them that you’re Black,” “man up!”, “a little bit of anxiety is good for you”), I have learned the hard lesson that there is a lot of advice that is thrown around, and most of it speaks to privileged scholars’ experiences (if it is based in truth at all).  The most helpful sources of advice as I progressed through the difficult year of job market and dissertating were my partner, my family, my friends, and my own heart, mind, and spirit.  My career will never mirror that of another person, so I have to do a better job of listening to that internal adviser.

3 — I acknowledge the institutionally valued markers of success (i.e., publication, grants, student evaluations, awards), but I will stop ignoring other signs of being loved, valued, and respected.  I have been collecting nice notes from friends and family in a Word document.  After attending the American Sociological Association annual meeting this weekend, I realized that I should better appreciate how many people value this blog.  (I heard from a dozen people, “I love your blog!”, but only once heard “I’m familiar with your research.)  This includes allowing being valued to work both up (i.e., from senior and higher-status scholars) and down (i.e., from younger and lower-status scholars), for chasing the attention of overburdened “stars” in my subfields places too much of my self-worth in the hands of people I must convince to notice me.

4 — I will continue working weekdays during reasonable work hours (sometimes 8am-6pm), as I have been doing since the second to last year of my graduate training.  Labor rights activists worked too hard to block off Saturday and Sunday as days off from work for me to relinquish the weekend.  That, and my salary is based on a 40-hour workweek, so I would rather save time in which I am volunteering for community service rather than to academic service.  I learned that I ultimately become too tired to work, and trying to do so every day left me unproductive and riddled with guilt and anxiety for not working.

Me - Rock Star5 — I must be a whole person.  This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation.  As a student, and even as new professor, I find it incredibly reassuring to see advisers as whole people — people who have families, laugh, cry, dress up and dress down, drink, etc.  I can stop using a professional-looking photo as my profile picture on Facebook.  I will not fall into “shop talk” outside of the office with colleagues who are also friends.  I owe it to myself, my partner, and my friends and family to be something more than the one-dimension of scholar.

6 — I will work at finding “real” friends, which may include my colleagues, but should include non-academics, as well.

7 — I will start having fun now because my health depends on it, and tomorrow is not promised to me.  It seems odd to me to work so hard for 6-10 years for a PhD, to then work even harder for another seven — all in the name of the job security we assume non-academics are not promised.

Status Or Happiness?  I’m Choosing Both

Inherent in this experiment, as well as Napgal’s post, is the assumed contradiction between status and happiness.  I have reflected in personal writing on these two paths as a series of major and minor crossroads throughout my life as a marginalized scholar:

These crossroads are just one aspect of the larger decision I face: do I choose status, or do I choose happiness?  In some ways, I have already made decisions toward both ends.  Unknowingly, I chose a top-ranked PhD program; I liked the feel, and assumed I would have support for my work in sexualities.  But, I took a liberal arts position close to my family, forgoing a longer stay in graduate school to increase my marketability (to research intensive schools).  My work took on a mainstream approach, while pushing the envelope.  I present myself in normative ways, but make no secret of my politics, views, and experiences.

I was reminded of the importance of reflective writing.  Immediately after I wrote the previous paragraph (yesterday, on my flight back from the ASA conference), I wrote the following:

The more I reflect on this, I realize I am actually on neither path.  I have not selected the “easy” route, completely relinquishing hope for status or prestige.  But, I also have not completely sold my soul for the status-driven route.  By bouncing back and forth between the two routes, I am actually on my own path.  And, it is my hope of hopes that I actually pave a new path, that my footsteps are making visible a new route for others.  With a commitment to paving the way, I must be open and honest with others about my successes and missteps.  My tale may even be a cautionary one for others behind me.  I must tell my story and live openly for the purview of others like me!

That is, it was this personal reflection that sparked the idea for this post.  I have done some digging to find out about other scholars before me who pursued alternative paths, for these individuals were either invisible in my graduate training or the more radical aspects of their lives were stripped away.  For example, though sociologists are slowly beginning to recognize the work of W. E. B. DuBois, we never talk about his work with NAACP, his experiences of racist discrimination, or anything other than his published works.  This, in my opinion, speaks back to being a whole person, even for other academics.  I would love to hear, “wow, I liked your article in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and omg, your blog is amazing!”

Tenure

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.  I chose not to stress about tenure, working on projects that meet my goals of social justice and accessibility at my own pace.  I will focus on “connecting up”, forging connections with senior scholars and the “big names” in my field, as well as “connecting down” by making genuine efforts to connect with my peers and younger scholars and students.  I will give occasional updates, and, in the end, report back on the findings of this 7-year experiment.  Wish me luck!

More Than R1: Why I Chose A Liberal Arts Job

Last year, as I was about to embark on the academic job market, I asked a professor “how was the market for you?  You seemed to have done pretty well for yourself.”  He responded something along the lines of having post-traumatic stress disorder from the process, which, even years later, he is still recovering from.  In some ways, he was joking — or least his tone had a sarcastic feel.  Today, as I see news about the 2013-2014 market in my field (sociology), I have been having random flashbacks of my own experience on the market.

The experience is rough for anyone, but I have little room to complain now sitting in my tenure-track job that meets many of my and my family’s needs.  But, I do think that, besides providing advice (see Monday’s post), there are some questions and concerns I can relay that may resonate with others.  The question that often kept me awake at night, second only to “will I get a job?”, was “where should I get a job?”  I alluded to some of these concerns in my post of advice for the job market.  But, I will go into more detail here.

Pre-Market Reflection

Underlying much of the advice I provided on Monday is the suggestion to reflect: reflect on when to go on the market, what kind of job you want, and what are your must-haves (non-negotiables) and would-like-to-haves (negotiables).  I emphasize this point often because I was greatly benefited in later stages of the job market by having actual written notes of reflection from earlier in the year.

On March 26, a few months before I officially “went on the market,” I wrote in a personal note:

Beyond feeling assured in my career trajectory, I need also to remember the love, pain, support, and connection I have felt in the rest of my life in the last seven months.  In that time, I have lost my nineteen-year-old cousin, Danny, have fallen madly in love with my partner Eric, found spirituality, became closer with some, made new friends, and reached new levels with my parents.  My health, the well-being of my friends and family, my relationships – these are just as important, if not more, than some other person’s definition of what my career should look like.

Job Wish List: No anxiety; Supports my research; Social justice or public sociology; East Coast; Marriage equality; Racial diversity; 45-ish hour workweek; Near, but not in major city; Reasonable teaching load; Women’s studies department, especially with an LGBT/sexuality focus; Small to medium class sizes; Democratic/liberal-leaning state; Near outdoor education/nature jobs; LGBT campus resource center; Collegial department; and, Clear expectations for tenure and service.

As I reread this list, I chuckle slightly because it seems I’ve described my current job, with a few exceptions.  But, though this sat at the back of my brain through the summer and fall semester, other(s’) expectations and values demanded to be at the fore during my job search.

Diving In

“You’re not applying to any liberal arts jobs, are you?”  “Of course not!” I responded, giving what I felt is the expected answer in many graduate training programs, which are generally housed at research-instensive universities.  After three years of fumbling my way through graduate school, I learned the name of the game: research.  The more I became focused primarily on research — and hid community service, efforts to create change in the department and university, and passion for teaching — the more successful I became.  And, relatedly (in my mind), I learned the status game.  Deference to faculty — answering questions posed to me, and minimizing critical and subversive responses — helped to speed interactions along.

I became quite effective at presenting myself as an R1 (research 1 university) bound job candidate.  Who would expect me to even apply to liberal arts jobs?  But, I complied with the aforementioned question (which felt like a demand).  I created my preliminary list of schools to which I would apply, containing R1 and a few R2 options.

Initially, I did apply to one liberal arts job — my first application — just to feel that experience of applying for an academic job.  It seemed like a long shot, and did not require an extensive package initially.  So, I figured I could do so without ever telling another soul.  That was, until a glitch in the school’s system caused automated requests for letters of recommendation to be sent to my committee.  Surprised and concerned, they contacted me, which then led to “the talk” with my chair about the schools to which I actually wanted to apply.  Stubbornly holding on to the esteem that I felt came with being a R1-bound “quantoid,” I reassured him that I had no intentions of seriously applying to liberal arts colleges.  Per his insistence, I finally updated my list of schools to include any and all that I would take over staying in graduate school another year (which, I felt, was any job).  Still, though, I continued to be supported throughout the job-seeking process as though I would end up at an R1 school.

Preliminary Interviews

Despite my committee’s apprehension about completing my graduate training early (by departmental standards), I received modest interest early in the job market cycle.  I met — formally and informally — with a dozen schools, and planted seeds for subsequent conversations, at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Denver.  (Job or not, one benefit of the job market is to begin to see your value broadly, rather than solely through the protective eyes of your department — somewhat akin to the relief parents feel when you demonstrate that you can live independently.)  I kept an open mind — an important approach given how little control one has over the job-search — in part, to avoid disappointment.  Some interviews that went swimmingly did not lead to on-campus job interviews; some interviews that teetered on hostile did lead to interviews.

That open-mindedness, coupled with anxiety about the market, turned into months of a professional existential crisis of sorts.  “What kind of job do I want?  What is the point to my career?”

On September 19th, I reflected in a personal note:

Now, seeking jobs upon the completion of my PhD, I am experiencing an identity crisis of sorts brewing.  The stage has been set for months now for me to pursue jobs in institutions just like the one I’m currently attending for graduate school – research-oriented universities that value big, grant-funded research, places little emphasis on teaching, avoids service, and never registers community service as “service” (ironically).  And, I have not enjoyed my time here.  Entering my sixth year, I still feel the realities of racism, heterosexism, sexism, classism, apoliticalness and apathy, and the effects of these things on my health and well-being.  It’s not just that my first year, rocked by racism I had never felt before, was challenging.  Any institution like this one will present the same challenges.  And, to pursue jobs in these places sets me up for the slow unfolding of an unhappy, regretful life.  Why am I doing it?

And, just a few days later:

It took some time to stop intermittently crying, ruminating over all that I had been through this week, and angrily mulling over all that this job search entails.  I even said to my partner that I felt it was immoral for academia to create and maintain a job market process that is so inherently threatening to the health and well-being of its job candidates.  Many of us suffer from mental health problems, are stressed, are stretched thin in our social lives and family lives.  Why is it that this process essentially wears further on those who are already worn down?  And, above it all for me, this psychological and emotional roller coaster is a sharp reminder that the academy is not necessarily the place I want to be, that there are so many aspects of what academia is that I find irrelevant, unnecessary, immoral, hypocritical, and misused.  This is not the place where I will find full support for my commitment to social justice through teaching, research, and service to the community.  And, more importantly as I try to resolve an identity crisis that was sparked this week, there are some places – namely research-oriented universities – that are the absolute last places I will be able to live out my activist side openly and with support.

And, one month later, just days before my interview with University of Richmond:

But, some things remain unsettled.  Assuming I take an academic position, will it be in a teaching-oriented college or research-oriented university?  I have settled on the reality that I like teaching, and I love one-on-one mentoring.  I don’t love research as the hegemonic force it appears to be.  But, I like the excitement of a research community, and I love my research.  I’m more likely to find the mentoring, research community, and support for my own research at an R1.  But, I don’t care to face the expectations to place research above all else.  I am an advocate first.  That means teaching, research, and service – broadly defined – are of equal importance to me.  If R1, or even liberal arts, will not support that, I don’t know that it is for me.

On-Campus Interviews

In late October, I interviewed for an assistant professor position in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at University of Richmond.  The job was advertised for scholars who specialize in gender, with secondary emphasis in either health or family.  I felt that I did OK on the interview, thus leaving me with great doubt about my prospects.  I guessed by the tired look on the faces of the faculty that I was the last of a few interviews; and, last presumably meant I was not their top pick, because I was last to be contacted to schedule the interview.  But, my sense of their feelings about me aside, I allowed myself to become excited about the potential job:

The more I assess the other possibilities, the more I am aware of how ideal Richmond is.  Here is why I say ideal.  Small, collegial department.  Diverse faculty, diverse student body.  Emphasis equally on teaching and research, with little care for where you publish your research.  Resources for service-based learning courses.  Lots of resources, period!  Lots of new momentum around promoting diversity and inclusion, especially around LGBT issues.  The university is close to my family.  The city is increasingly diverse, progressive, and queer-friendly.  I cannot think of a school, or even among those that obviously will not extend an invitation for an interview, that excites me in so many different was as does Richmond.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the university’s openness to being a public intellectual.  Hello!  Could you find a more ideal fit for me?   So, here is to hoping for Richmond.  I said it.  That is what I want.

A couple of weeks later, the Dean called to offer the position.  As she spoke, I wished the conversation would end quickly so that I could let the building emotions I felt out.  After we concluded the call, I burst into tears, paced the apartment chanting, “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”  I felt relief that I had been offered the position I would have taken on the spot, and relief that I had a job (in light of having to push to go on the market in the first place).

I still had another interview lined up — one at a mid-tier R1 in the Midwest.  I knew, no matter my feelings about Richmond, that I should check out at least one other school to compare.  So, I went on the interview, which was fine; but, it became clear that an R1 job was not what I was after, and I felt more confident in the potential of accepting with UR.

While I was on the interview, I received a call for an invite to interview with another R1 university — highly-ranked, characterized as supportive (in general, but specifically for people of color and LGBT people), and a dream for the R1 part of my brain.  The temptation was strong, but I did not have the luxury of time to go on yet another interview.  Once again in my life (and the second time in that year), I had to have an honest conversation about my needs.  I told the search committee chair — someone I respect and admire deeply — that I had to decline the invitation, and would respond to University of Richmond to accept its job offer.  Having internalized (some) of the values of the research-obsessed environment of my graduate training, it felt as though I responded to an offer of $1 million with, “no, thanks; I’ve got inner peace.”

The Aftermath

Finally, relief.  I had accepted a job that suited my needs and those of my family.  But, the decision was not without conflict and tension.  I had to return to my pre-market reflections to remind myself of my priorities and values.  “My health, the well-being of my friends and family, my relationships – these are just as important, if not more, than some other person’s definition of what my career should look like.”  I had to force myself to disentangle what my heart was telling me from others’ values that I had internalized.  My partner was in full support of my decision.  (Each time I asked, “how do you feel about X R1 university?”, he rebuffed that it seemed silly to ask because I was already miserably at an R1.)  My parents were supportive, with only a little concern that taking a “less prestigious” job might hurt my career prospects in the future.

My department… well.  All R1s tend to have a bias for reproducing themselves.  As I noted earlier, I had become effective in convincing others (and, often, myself) that I was R1 bound.  One trusted professor named it explicitly: “but, they have invested so much in you!”  And, taking a job at a liberal arts college would be a waste of that investment.  (And, by that logic, R1 departments don’t invest [as much] in liberal arts-bound graduate students?)  I heard a range of concerns, and was asked that I meet with each member of my committee to hear their perspectives in particular.  “You’ll become irrelevant.”  “You may adjust to the calmer work culture.”  “You may experience a disadvantage in being selected as a reviewer for journals, grants, leadership positions in the discipline.”  “I would decline the offer and hope for one from an R1.”

I do not share this to demonize my committee, my department, or R1 institutions.  Certainly, I have kept silent about this for fear of burning bridges, or being stigmatized in my field.  This part of the process felt as though I was being shouted at from dozens of people, forcing me to cover my ears and curl into a ball so that I could hear my own thoughts.  Though I felt relief upon accepting the job, I felt compelled to “explain myself” to every colleague who asked where I had taken a position.  “Oh, well it has a 3-2 teaching load (where the 3 is two of the same class, and new course preps are minimized), my salary is comparable (and better than) many R1 jobs…”  Why not simply say, “Oh, University of Richmond.  It’s a great fit for me!”  I did usually mention fit and happiness, but as the last items on a long list of perks that made it seem like a decent excuse to leave R1 land.  (And, I will add that those perks often surprised colleagues who expected I’d have a 4-4 load and be paid just a bit more than I was as a graduate student.)

Relief turned to guilt and doubt (am I wasting my skills? will I miss the incessant pressure to publish?).  I compromised my excitement with my fear by planning to remain as productive and visible as possible.  In essence, I had decided to work like I was at an R1 in case I ever decided to move back to the R1 world.  (Maybe that possibility would satisfy the R1 bias enough.)  But, per my partner’s reminders, and in talking to some very productive (and happy) people in liberal arts jobs, I eventually accepted that I was headed to Richmond based on my own enthusiasm about the job, as it satisfies many of my needs.  Of course, I will be productive and visible — that’s just my style as an academic.  But, I can relinquish the excessive internal pressure to do so now that I have removed myself from the excessive pressure of “publish or perish” at insane R1 levels.

Exposing The Cult

Why was this process so hard?  And, specifically, for me?  Before graduate school, I twice made major, difficult decisions to choose authenticity and happiness over status: I came out at age 17 and I relinquished a full scholarship in math in hopes of a generic one.  I struggled for some time to attempt to go with tradition, status, popularity, and “safety.”  By the time I declared these decisions to my parents, my mind had already been made up; their efforts to encourage me to choose the safer routes were futile.

In declaring that I would finish graduate school at the close of my sixth year, and then accepting the position at Richmond, I once again felt as though I was coming out to my parents.  In this case, my committee, had concerns that I would be giving up a happier, more successful life.  But, I had to remind them that success has never been a primary source of happiness for me; I cannot be happy if I am censored, constrained, or inauthentic.  Ultimately, I could see that they knew I would stick firmly to my decision (apparently, I had a reputation for being stubborn, though even that level of stubbornness took great constraint, censoring, and deference).  As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I figured it was my decision to make and (possibly) regret.  I would rather be proven wrong than have to live with the consequences of following someone else’s advice.

So far, I see nothing that would lead me to feel regret.  I have plenty of resources at my finger tips, will feel just enough pressure to publish to hold me accountable (but not hostage), and have room to pursue meaningful service.  And, who could pass up on a lake on campus?!

Lake

I have decided to publicly broadcast this story because it does resonate with others’.  As I interviewed and then made a decision about accepting a job, a good friend went through a nearly identical experience — groomed for R1, and then broke a lot of hearts by taking a liberal arts job.  And, even today, as I wrote this post, I received a message from a friend who is feeling some of the same doubt and guilt about taking a job other than a tenure-track position at an R1 institution.  In some ways, academe — particularly R1 land — is a cult.  Through the professional socialization of graduate training, the academy becomes our lives.  So quitting or failing (or choosing) to land a certain job after graduation can lead to feelings of failure.

It crossed my mind a few times that I might be disowned by my graduate institution.  Or, maybe that I would be quietly erased from the department’s history to prevent younger and future students from “getting any bright ideas.”  Since I went to a mid-sized state school for college, and then an R1 for graduate school, I had little to go on about whether I would thrive at a liberal arts institution.  When I asked alums who had taken liberal arts jobs — “but, why?  but, how?” — I was feeling both that they owed a justification for not “going R1” and to give others hope that happiness exists outside of R1s, too.  So, I am doing my part by sharing my story.  I know I am not alone in being uncertain about the “where” question, and in answering that question with “not R1!”  I hope that sharing my experience will help future PhDs in this difficult process.  And, as a colleague at Richmond noted to me yesterday (as did my graduate department), this isn’t necessarily for life!  So, I say choose happiness and authenticity and health, and the success will follow!

Other Perspectives And Resources

To counter the one-sidedness of much of the “go R1” advice I received while on the job market (well, throughout graduate school, really), I had to do my homework for voices that spoke to life at liberal arts colleges.  (As I noted above, I had little exposure to them, besides campus visits to prospective colleges as an 18-year-old.)  So, here are some resources that may help others, as well.