Toward A Self-Defined Activist-Academic Career In Sociology

Earlier this year, in the midst of working on my dissertation, I found blogging to be a healthy refuge through the loooooong days.  It provided me a space to write without the persistent editing (and censoring) I must do in traditional academic writing.  So, like Jeff Kosbie, I wrote a blog post on defining my career as a sociologist for myself — specifically a career that will be informed by my passion to make the world a better and just place (see below).  Also, check out Michelle Kweder’s piece, “Why I’m not waiting for tenure to change the world…” 

I hope you’ll be inspired!

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DangerBeing forced to watch the  world whirl by me as I worked on my dissertation was tortuous: two cases on same-gender marriage heard by the US Supreme Court; horrendous media coverage of an already horrendous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio; a racist attempt at anti-racism in music.  And, just as I came up for air, the good news of finishing was overshadowed by the tragic bombings in Boston.  I tried by best to keep up, but, obviously, I have been way too busy to chime in.

But, one good thing has come out of the selfish time of dissertating — well, besides an awesome dissertation.  My mind has been boiling over with questions about research and academia in general.  In attending college, I learned; but, now (almost) with a PhD in hand, I see how I have learned how to learn.  And, increasingly, that critical eye has turned back on itself, raising questions about knowledge and science.

What is “knowledge”?  What is “science”?  Who defines it?  Who has access to it (and who doesn’t)?  Are the multiple types of knowledge and science — and, if so, are they equally valued in academia and society in general?

On Activism And Academia

As I near the completion of my graduation training, I feel both more qualified as a scholar, but also more empowered in defining my scholarship for myself.  And, I will tell you, the latter sentiment is largely a product of self-teaching, not so much my graduate program.  I alluded to this in my essay on blogging as a form of intellectual activism.

I have received mixed reactions to my essay, “Blogging For (A) Change.”  Initially, many were excited, supportive, and noted that they share my sentiments.  I was not surprised, since these warm responses were coming from my primary, intended audience — fellow sociologists of color and anti-racist sociologists.  (It was an essay for the ASA‘s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities.)  But, given its potential relevance to all scholars, I also provided the essay as a blog post.

Thereafter, I began to receive more cautioned responses.  In addition to private exchanges, I was honored to be the subject of another blog post by Dr. Fabio Rojas: “why activism and academia don’t mix.”  Fabio explains:

Why do we “beat [activism] out’ of graduate students?  The answer, in my view, is that academia and activism are simply different things. Every activity has a bottom line. In politics, it’s votes. In business, it’s money. In religion, it’s souls. Activism is about promoting social change, which is a different bottom line than academia, which is knowledge generation.

Beyond the differences in the goals of academia and activism, Fabio notes that the latter is neither rewarded nor institutionally sanctioned within the former.  And, he clarifies that, ultimately, academics do have a role in social change — the production of knowledge.  A few other sociologists chimed in with comments to emphasize that the commitment of a scholar of color to the advancement of one’s community or people of color in general does not necessarily imply that one is an activist.

Fearing that I may have been mistaken in speaking for other scholars of marginalized backgrounds, I posed the question on Facebook: “Was I wrong in assuming many academics are also activists, even at heart?”  For the most part, my scholarly friends suggested no, with many suggesting that they, too, are activists.  But, there seems to be good reason for the skepticism that some have expressed.

Activism And Academia Can Mix, But…

Let me start by removing the question —  “can one be an academic and an activist?” — from the table.  Yes, it is possible.  There are a handful of people who have suggested that this is the case for them; I strongly suspect that there is at least a sizable minority of scholars for whom this is true.

DuBoisAnd, history suggests that it has been done.  In the last subject of my leisure reading, Stalking the Sociological Imagination, I was reminded that some of the founders of sociology were activists, including W. E. B. DuBois and C. Wright Mills.  (Some who are discussed — for example, Talcott Parsons — were simply the unfortunate subject of McCarthyism despite maintaining a generally non-activist career in sociology.)  Before that, I was reading Dr. Patricia Hill Collins‘s On Intellectual Activism.

But, as Fabio pointed out, activism — here, meaning any efforts toward social justice or social change outside of research, teaching, and (academic) service — is not rewarded in academe.  For most academic jobs, one is hired because of their qualifications in this academic “Holy Trinity” – research, teaching, and service (usually in that order, especially at research intensive schools).  The same goes for tenure, promotion, and most of the other academic opportunities that scholars pursue (e.g., grants, awards).

But, let’s be clear that the sentiment that one shouldn’t be an activist is a separate matter from whether one can be an activist.  In addition, lack of professional reward implies what is valued, not necessarily what is devalued.  You can be a drag queen, baseball player, stamp collector, or whatever other activities you like outside of work even though the academy will not pay you for it.

Activism And Science Can Mix, But…

A second issue is whether activism and science, in particular, mix.  As one of my friends pointed out, the primary concern is that the biases of someone with activist leanings pose a threat to the objectivity required in science.  For example, if a researcher wishes to advocate for the legalization of same-gender marriage, what would she do if her research suggested that children of LGBT parents really do fare worse than those of heterosexual, cisgender parents?  But, a few things need to be unpacked from the science vs. activism dilemma:

First, sorry folks — “objective science” is an oxymoron.  Humans, who are biased in all sorts of ways (e.g., passions, interests, experiences), do science.  Scientists typically study the things they find interesting or about which they are passionate.  Sometimes we get sleepy and make mistakes.

This is where the peer review process comes in.  While it is not perfect. we gain more confidence when new studies have been vetted by other scholars in that subfield.  When done right, a researcher should be well aware of prior research to aid in research design, analyses, and interpretation.  The roles of anonymous reviewers and the journal’s editor(s) are to verify all aspects of the study.  So, if a researcher submitted a study heavily laden with political motivations, with little sound science or major ethical concerns, the reviewers and editor should catch it before it gets published.

A third issue is the failure to acknowledge other problematic biases in research that do little for society as a whole.  In particular, I am referring to the “publish or perish” dictum that places great emphasis on where one’s articles are published, and how many publications one can obtain in a certain period of time.  Not only do I worry that this pressure poses a threat to scholars’ health and well-being, I sometimes fear that scholars’ motivations for prestige and quantity lead them to overlook bigger contributions to theory and to society in general.

Another unspoken consequence of this pressure is the number of studies that have been tweaked or totally abandoned because researchers yield “null findings” — for, it is the significant findings that get you published!  My point here is that science is not perfect, whether activists are doing research or not.

Activism, Academia, And Research Can Mix, And…

phcI argue that it is important to weigh the benefits of the mixing of activism and academia, too, before we jump to a decision on this mixture.  If activism reflects one’s passion for a particular social or political cause, then the work of activist-oriented scholars may benefit academia on the whole because of their unique motivation about the subject and the extra care they take in their work.  In addition, this activist flare may bring a creative lens to one’s scholarship.  Just think of where the social sciences be if Patricia Hill Collins never pursued an academic career, deciding instead to continue working toward educational reform.  Would some other sociologist have applied and extended Kimberlé Crenshaw‘s legal scholarship on intersectionality?

Indeed, for some scholars (myself included), one’s research, teaching, and service are interdependent.  There is a sort of synergy among these three components of our scholarship that is greater than the sum of research + teaching + service.  For example, I experienced a great sense of mutual influence among my research (discrimination and health, LGBT health), teaching, and my work as a co-facilitator for “Boyfriend Lessons” — a series of workshops for bisexual, trans, and gay young men on health and well-being (particularly sexual health).  I brought to the latter insights from others’ and my own research to articulate how the health of queer men is shaped and constrained within a bi-, trans-, and homophobic context.  These insights have also been articulated in my blogging for Kinsey Confidential.  When I taught Sexual Diversity in 2009-2010, I often shared my Kinsey Confidential blog posts, as well as news of current events, to spark discussion and “warm up” the class for the day’s lecture.  My teaching, my service to the community, as well as my personal experiences and interpersonal connections, in turn, have influenced my research.

But, this comes with full knowledge that service that is not serving the academy does not “count” professionally.  And, again, I stress the importance of the peer review process for publishing research.  How I get to the research process in the first place, and what I do with research once it’s published are undeniably influenced by my commitment to social justice.  While it also influences how I do research, I based my decisions and interpretations on existing theory and research, and have my work vetted by other scholars, just like my non-activist colleagues.

Now, About The Elephant In The Room…

I keep harping on the matter of science, despite its imperfections, because there are some ways in which academia and activism do not mix.  Well, there is one big way, and that is when scholars shirk standards of ethical, empirically- and theoretically-based science all together.

The scandal surrounding a 2012 study by University of Texas Austin sociologist, Mark Regnerus, has been at the background throughout my public dialogue on activism and academia.  Since this story first emerged as I entered the job market, I decided to stay silent on the scandal.  And, even once I secured a job, things had grown to a level that I felt it was best to let those protected by tenure to chime in.  But, this case is likely the example of the concern that skeptics have raised.

Besides my fear of professional consequences, a further complication is the concern that calls for academic freedom must acknowledge that the political pendulum swings both ways.  If I wish to have more space for scholars to blog, speak to the media, and use their research for public “good,” I must recognize that some will be doing so for causes that are not my own, or are even counter to mine.  Sure, Regnerus should be free to blog (as he does), no matter his conservative views.

But, this case stands out because there is evidence that he did not draw upon existing theory and research throughout his research design (namely, how he defined “families with lesbian parents“).  Further, to some extent, the peer review process was usurped.  Even if this paper was not used in political efforts to oppose same-gender marriage, this is simply bad science.

The harmful mix of this bad science and his conservative activism is further apparent in the use of this study (which should have been retracted all together) to encourage the US Supreme Court to deny legal recognition of same-gender couples.  Even when the American Sociological Association spoke for the discipline to say there is no empirical evidence to cause concern for the well-being of children of LGBT parents, he co-signed on an amicus brief that said otherwise, largely based on his and another flawed study.  Unfortunately, his singular voice and study were reframed in the actual SCOTUS case as evidence that sociologists have yet to reach a consensus on LGBT families.

Bad science + activism = public harm.  The peer review process should have prevented the study from ever being published.  And, in being responsible scholars, greater effort should have been made to balance supposed mixed findings: 50 studies say X, but, there is one that says not X; here’s why we the latter study is important (or not).  (The ASA brief did this, and further stressed why Regnerus’s study is flawed and irrelevant to LGBT families.  Regnerus et al. did not do this in their brief to the Supreme Court.)

I believe that scholars can be activist-academics or activist-leaning academics or academics from 9-5 and activists on the weekends.  But, this is with the caveat that scholars should be responsible and ethical in how they do research and what they do with it, and how they teach and on what topics, how they serve academic and non-academic communities.

Academia Needs Activism

A final point on the activism-academia mixture is that they need each other.  Activists need the work of researchers to make a case for social change, particularly to change laws and policies.  Researchers, in turn, benefit from their work being carried beyond the pay-walls of academic journals.

But, beyond the notion of active activists and passive academics who simply do science and produce knowledge, academia benefits from activist efforts to bust down barriers to the ivory tower.  Despite his undeniable contributions to sociology, W. E. B. DuBois was not welcomed into the discipline because he was Black.  Eventually fed up with the racism of sociology and the academy in general, he turned more exclusively to activism, co-founding the NAACP.

Recently, I have learned of other marginalized scholars who were either kept out or whose contributions were ignored. Today, I began reading Imagine a World: Pioneering Black Women Sociologists.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of the five Black women sociologists featured in the book: Jacquelyne Johnson Jackson, LaFrancis Rodgers-Rose, Joyce A. Ladner, Doris Wilkinson, and Delores P. Aldridge.  But, considering that the discipline has not been (and still is not) immune to the prejudices and discriminatory practices of the outside world, why would I?

THOMASThe most mind-blowing revelation I have had on this matter is the obvious erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  She co-authored a book with W. I. Thomas, from which “his” famous quote comes: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572).  Yet, Dorothy is rarely given credit for the “W. I. Thomas quote.”  Sadly, what was originally outright sexism that drove the discipline to erase her contribution, my generation of scholars is never taught about her just because our teachers do not know otherwise.

These revelations have fueled my aforementioned interests in the sociology of knowledge and sociology of science.  It is a scary thought that what is taken as Truth is based on science done overwhelmingly by privileged scholars (i.e., middle-class white men) sometimes based on samples that do not reflect members of marginalized groups.  Marginalized scholars are excluded or their work is undermined (sometimes as a result of the exclusion).  For example, there is a slow growth of studies on sexuality published in the top journals in sociology, yet such scholarship published in sexuality journals is regarded as unimportant to mainstream sociology or it is dismissed as “mesearch” if conducted by an LGBT scholar.  (Because the work white middle-class men do, even on themselves, is Objective Science and Truth.)

It is unsurprisingly to me, then, that some minority scholars who were initially interested studying their communities (for their advancement or liberation) end up doing work on the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Patricia Hill Collins) or critiquing research methods (e.g., Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva).

Moving Forward

In sum, I reiterate that it is possible to be an activist and an academic.  If responsible, one’s work in one domain can benefit the other.  And, for some, the synergy among all aspects of your activist and academic selves cannot be compartmentalized into research, teaching, (academic) service, and community service or activism.  The question is not whether you can be.  And, frankly, I think it is time to move beyond asking whether you should be an activist.  Some people just are.

I conclude, then, by suggesting that it is time to recognize the reality of activism in academia, and better appreciate the good it does for it.  Arguably, science would remain limited and exclusive without activist efforts to end discriminatory practices in education.

Moving forward, the question should be how to support students and scholars who are activists at heart (because you never know what impact they can have in society!).  I call for ending the practice of “beating the activist” out of graduate students.  It is no secret that many students come into graduate programs, especially in the social sciences, with the hopes of making a difference.  It is time to support them as they are.

My Kind Of Sociology

And, I am working toward my own self-defined sociology, even after six years of “beatings” in graduate school.  You may have noticed that I renamed my blog, My Sociology.  This was the name of my very first blog.  By the title, I do not imply that I own sociology (though we could debate whether it can be or is owned, and by whom).  Rather, I take the position that there is no one, singular way to do sociology nor to be a sociologist.

Seeing the doubt that students from marginalized backgrounds experience, particularly in graduate school, makes it particularly important to support activist-leaning academics.  A narrow image of successful scholars is purported, and the disconnect between one’s social justice desires and what they learn in graduate school persists.  So, too many — just too many — scholars of color, women scholars, first-generation and working-class scholars doubt themselves, questioning whether an academic career is right for them, and, frankly, whether they are right (read: good enough) for academia.

There are a number of examples of sociologists, whether or not they identify as activists, who serve as inspiring role models, folks who pursue their own kind of sociology:

  • DJ Elaine Harvey and Sociologist Mignon Moore UCLA sociologist Mignon Moore and her partner Elaine Harvey have presented their relationship and love to the world to inspire other LGBT folks (especially those of color) and change minds on same-gender marriage.  Her work on Black lesbian families (including an article in American Sociological Review!) has advanced the intersectionality theoretical framework to (re)visit the intersections among race, gender, and sexuality.  Also, she uses an innovative method (interactions at social events and private parties) for her research.

Harvey and Moore – TIME

“Cultivating Allies As A Woman of Color in Academia” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Below, Dr. Whitaker provides advice for seeking allies in academia, particularly for women of color.  Be sure to check out the other great guest blog posts by Dr. Whitaker.

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Cultivating Allies as a Woman of Color in Academia

Manya WhitakerI tried my best to not comment on the pseudo Harlem Shake crap that is all the rage right now, but since students at my college filmed a video of themselves engaging in that nonsense, and said video went viral, this issue has become personal. It has become all the more personal because while I can excuse the students for participating in cultural mockery and theft (hey — they are 20, they do not know), I cannot excuse my colleagues. Since so many others have taken the time to breakdown the History of the Harlem Shake, and to write articles about cultural misappropriation (here, here, and here) I feel no need to go down that path.

Instead, I want to discuss allyhood in academia and how as a female junior faculty member of color, I must identify allies…and those who would be betray me with a click of the mouse.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am reading Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. There is a section in the book about forming networks of allies in the Academy. Nancy Cantor wrote the introduction for that section and states ‘It’s both difficult and important that women who are white—the relatively privileged ones who have been the primary beneficiaries of feminism—perceive, acknowledge, and then act against the additional forms of discrimination experienced by women of color without feeling defensive’ (pg. 222). I flagged this sentence when I first read this chapter weeks ago and more now than then, I feel this is an important point. So this is where I shall begin my tale of betrayal at a small liberal arts college.

Because our students’ video was such a hit, the faculty thought it would be ‘fun’ to film our own 30 second video at the next faculty meeting. Actually, two faculty members came up with this idea and emailed the rest of the faculty with the suggestion. Now, upon receiving this email I was astounded. I was astounded not because this idea emerged—it was inevitable that someone would hop on this train to nowhere. No, I was stunned because of who made the suggestion. The people who made the suggestion would never be people I’d think would support such nonsense. Both of these people are faculty who—whether they feel this way or not—occupy marginalized spaces on campus. Though both senior faculty members, one is openly homosexual and the other is of Asian descent. The latter specifically researches issues pertinent to race, so her complicity felt like a slap in the face. After reading the email I said aloud to myself ‘is she serious?’ My immediate emotional experience cannot be described as anything other than feelings of betrayal laced in incredulity. This quickly turned to anger.

A close friend and African American colleague contacted me about this issue to formulate a plan for how we were going to respond if in fact the faculty decided to film this video. During that conversation, we thought about who else was ‘down for the cause’ and could only come up with two nonwhite faculty members. While we both wished a senior faculty member was not away on sabbatical because she certainly would’ve publicly allied herself with us, we were stunned that between two of us, we could not identify more people who would stand up and fight with us. At the end of the convo, I sadly said ‘wow…I thought we had more allies.’

Though a few minutes after the aforementioned conversation, the Asian faculty member emailed to say maybe we shouldn’t do it because after quick research, filming such a video may have ‘unintended consequences’, I couldn’t help but continue to be enraged because a) this idea emerged in the first place, and b) it could be just as easily quelled without a dialogue between affected parties.

The ‘settling’ of this issue was devoid of critical thought or open conversation. The words race, misappropriation, cultural theft, black, misidentification, or history were never mentioned. All we got was a two sentence email cloaked in light hearted liberal arts humor with a slight acquiescence that yes, perhaps this idea was not the best because they may perceive unintentional harm. The word ‘unintentional’ is laced with blame on the others and drenched with self excuse. By not discussing it, or even opening it up for discussion, the issue was deemed unworthy of discussion. That email was colorblind, perspectiveless, ahistorical, and riddled with power. Because she decided that she did not want to discuss it, the issue was closed. What of us who are still upset? Still offended? Still full of words we have been barred from sharing because the prefix to your title outranks the prefix to mine?

No. This does not feel like allyhood.

“By your powers combined…I am Captain Planet!” Hehe..I think of this when I think of allies.

I have learned a few things. First, friendship and respect do not equate allyhood. While mentally scrolling through my list of friends for possible allies it became clear that few people would sacrifice their reputation or professional relationships for the greater good (perhaps because they do not view it as ‘greater’ or ‘good’). Few people can find the courage and fortitude to do more than softly agree behind closed doors. When it comes time to stand up publicly and declare an alliance, most friends will hold their heads down while avoiding eye contact (if they are not in fact, already out of the door). They do not want to look me in my eyes and see the result of their abandonment. And I get it. It’s hard to do what you know is right when you don’t feel anything was wrong.

A chapter in Presumed Incompetent written by Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman outlines what it takes for people to truly be considered allies when it comes to issues of race. They describe the necessity of color insight—the recognition that a racial status quo exists in which society attributes race to each member—to battle the pervasiveness of colorblindness. Ignoring issues of race under the guise of equality does nothing but create a space in which racism and oppression can grow unchecked, only emerging when people can no longer avoid discussing the black, brown, yellow, or red elephant in the room.

They also borrow from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1994) discussion of perspectivelessness—the adoption of the “neutral” white norm as the default for laws, values, and behaviors. I especially believe this construct is constantly at play in racialized environments because it empowers people to not think about how their behaviors and words affect others. It is as if they believe ‘if most people are fine with it, then what’s the big deal?’

Yes, it seems to me as if colorblindness precedes, or perhaps bolsters, the existence of perspectivelessness. It is easy to ignore others when you refuse to accept that no, everyone is not like me and everyone is not treated as I am treated. I am especially concerned with the fact that the homogenous climate of academia facilitates (and sometimes encourages) the silencing of racial discourse. Why is it that one woman of color was allowed to represent the collective voices of ethnic minorities? Why didn’t a white colleague challenge her self-assumed position as Speaker of the [Colored] House? Most of all, why were we faculty members who disagreed with her narrative forced to plot and plan in secret instead of being given the space and opportunity to express our views publicly? The fallacy of community in academia made certain that she felt comfortable not having to think about how her endorsement of a racialized behavior would be perceived by white colleagues. She is tenured, she is well respected on campus, and she is Asian. So of course she has the experience, the knowledge, and the right to suggest such an idea. Because if she thinks it’s ok, and she is Asian, then it must be ok, right?

I am certain she never intended to speak on behalf of all ethnic minorities, but the reality is that many believe in the singular experience of minorities. Why didn’t she and other faculty in support of this video research the topic before going public with it? If we who are scholars trained at top notch institutions, national award recipients, professors at a tier 1 college do not feel the need to investigate the origins and implications of pop cultural trends, the future of academia is bleak.

We in academia are far from what Susan Sturm (2006) calls an ‘architecture of inclusion’ because we do not acknowledge what it takes for others to be included. It takes more than a shared smile in the hallway, laughs over lunch, invitations to personal events, and overlapping research interests to build inclusivity. As Nancy Cantor states, it takes ‘a culture of collaboration where issues of intersectionality can be addressed. Inclusion requires justice and due process. It also needs the give and take of social support, of flexibility of models and respect for individual and group differences…’. I would add that inclusion requires true allyhood—loud, proud, public allegiance across diverse people. Allied relationships are built upon shared knowledge, even if there aren’t shared experiences. Most importantly, allyhood, and by default, inclusion are not ephemeral weak constructs easily undermined by threats of ostracization or promises of promotion. Allies are people to whom we can turn for support even when, no—especially when—the professional turns personal.

Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong.  It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting.  Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”

Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom.  Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.

But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion?  Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?

Tolerate Intolerance

Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes.  The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students.  One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes.  One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views.  Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them.  In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.

Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:

I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.

Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions?  I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter.  Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom?  I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc.  But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?

The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc.  If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material.  I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion.  And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”

Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective.  For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course.  So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between.  But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams.  I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.”  On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.

Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors

Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves.  (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.)  So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators.  But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.

First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate studentsSpecifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes.  Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world.  Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”

“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”

It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools.  For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance.  And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students.  Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.

Academic Freedom, Right?

With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors.  Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people.  If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job.  And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”

[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination.  But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution.  In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away.  Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations.  These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.

Freedom From Intolerance In Academia

At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms).  One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence.  This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“).  Yes, that is true for our democracy.

But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment.  Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview.  It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.

Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus.  This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion.  This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus).  We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class.  Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.

Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety.  “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors.  Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!).  I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.

Recommendations

  • If academia recognizes scholarship by  and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.  At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors).  Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.”  (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
  • In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia.  This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
  • Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity.  That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
  • Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door.  Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture.  Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
  • Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us!  Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
  • Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people.  It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.”  These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
  • Develop a safe zone/space training program.  I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people.  As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community.  The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
  • Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities.  First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people.  Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression.  Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men.  Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.

Resources For LGBTQ Academics

“And Your Preferred Pronoun?” Another Step Toward Inclusion In Our Classrooms

Imagine this: rather than assuming our students’ gender identity based on their appearance and formal university records, we as instructors can simply ask them — “what is your preferred pronoun?”

Learning From (All Of) Our Colleagues

I suppose there is no harm in admitting that the career not pursued for me was one of a student affairs professional.  When I began applying to graduate schools in 2006, I weighed between sociology, women’s and gender studies, and student affairs.  My mentors in the student affairs side of campus suggested I would have an easier time shifting into student affairs with a PhD in sociology than to sociology with a PhD in student affairs.  So, the compromise has been to become a sociology professor who, at times, will be an advocate and mentor for students outside of the traditional classroom setting.  To further bridge these two worlds — students academic lives and their “extracurricularlives (formal clubs, but also developing into adults) — I remain open to collaborations and mutual learning with my colleagues in student affairs and higher education.

Over the summer, I went through my university’s Safe Zone training program, and attended one of the lunches for safe zone allies.  At the beginning of each of these events, Ted Lewis — University of Richmond’s Associate Director of LGBTQ Campus Life — asks attendees to introduce themselves: your name and your preferred pronoun.  At some point, Ted usually indicates that this approach is to avoid making assumptions, and to be more inclusive of trans* and gender non-conforming people.  At the summer safe zone brownbag lunch on LGBTQ students in our classrooms, we spoke at greater length about the importance of this approach.  And, while most appreciated the importance of doing so, the (junior) professors in the room squirmed at the thought of doing something that may be considered radical.

Ted always seems so comfortable when starting meetings this way.  So, I figured I could employ this in my classes, no matter how scary it might be.  A colleague actually discouraged me from doing so, fearing the students’ (negative) reactions and, in turn, their (negative) course evaluations.  I shared that fear, so my compromise was to ask students’ preferred pronoun in my gender and sexuality class (11 students, high gender and racial diversity) but not in my research methods class (20 people, lower gender and racial diversity).

The Experiment

On the first day of the semester, I was comfortable enough to ask students in my research methods course for their preferred name.  Per Ted’s suggestion, to be even more inclusive, we must not assume students use the legal name listed in the university’s records.  And, this is welcoming not just for trans* and gender non-conforming students, but any student who goes by Bill instead of William.  And, to minimize the embarrassment we feel as (US-born) instructors as we knowingly, yet helplessly, mispronounce international students names, we allow them to pronounce it for us first, or, for some, provide the “Americanized” name they have adopted for this very reason.  There seemed to be a slight level of appreciation from the students for calling only their last names, and having them respond with their preferred first name.  But, I did not feel brave enough to ask for preferred pronouns.

On the first meeting of my gender and sexuality course, I did ask both preferred name and preferred pronoun.  I quickly jotted down “he”, “she”, and “ze” on the board to explain what a pronoun is.  The students complied.  As much as possible, I do the scary things that I ask of my students; when I ask them to share parts of themselves or personal background, I share as well to lessen the power differential.  So, as the last student announced their name and pronoun, it came to me to respond.  Since I was nervous during this entire exercise, I rambled: “Doctor or Professor Grollman; and he, she, whatever really.”  I had not emotionally prepared for outing myself, so I was dissatisfied with an incoherent response that probably raised more questions than answers.  Then, I moved on by briefly explaining my desire to make the classroom inclusive for trans* and gender non-conforming students, and then into covering the syllabus.

The Brave Act Of Asking?

In hindsight, it is quite telling that I experienced such nervousness about asking people the simple question — “what is your preferred pronoun?”  It is less scary to assume for everyone, and potentially erase or misgender trans* and gender non-conforming people.  That, to me, is a shame.  The sheer importance of actually asking recently became more apparent as news story after news story ignored Chelsea Manning’s (a soldier convicted of espionage this summer) self-defined gender identity and preferred pronoun of “she”/”her.”

The saving grace was, first, the sky did not fall and I was not unemployed by the end of the day.  The students did not scream at me, “you queer radical!”  And, no one left before the official end of class time.  Later, a student thanked me for asking, and confided in me that another student said, “wow, you know I never really thought about that.”  In that moment, I indicated to one student an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, and, to another student, I disrupted the taken-for-granted practice of sex categorizing.  I also put myself out there, at a minimum to students’ assumption that I am LGBT, but possibly that I am transgender or gender non-conforming.

This is a brave step up from what I have done in the past.  When I taught sexual diversity a few years ago, I would drop little hints about my background throughout the semester — that I am multiracial, that I am from the East Coast — but, mostly fairly inert details.  So, given the personal nature of the assignments for those classes, I let students devote one of their in-class quizzes to asking me something about myself.  There is usually a surprising mix, but most of them end up asking — “omg, tell us already — are you gay?”  I end up using that moment to bring them back to our lectures on queer theory, gender identity, and the social construction of sexual orientation to tease them with: “I’m queer.”  And, then explain that I identify as genderqueer, despite my typical masculine gender presentation, and that I acknowledge my attraction to masculinity not merely stereotypically male bodies.  Ah, yes — remember when we deconstructed the male/female binary, and the homo/hetero binary, and the distinction between sex and gender?

My treat to them was to share a picture of me in drag (actually, genderfuck).  I relish in their “wow!”s and pleased laughter.  But, I also feel at ease about baring my “true” identity because the have already completed their course evaluations.  To protect myself from professional harm, I allowed the students to assume week after week that I am cisgender of whatever sexual identity.  But, at the cost of keeping trans* and gender non-conforming people (even myself to an extent) invisible until it is professionally “safe.”

Pronouns

The Sacrifice

Now with a PhD, and a job that I have at least for seven years, I am pushing myself to be braver.  I am sacrificing what I may be mistakenly assuming is a delicate rapport with (more conservative) cisgender and heterosexual students to make my classroom inclusive.  Yes, it could very well mean a ding to my course evaluations.  I may even find awful, possibly homophobic and transphobic comments on RateMyProfessor.com in a year.  Frankly, I think it is worth it to push cisgender students, at least once in their entire lives, to answer the dreaded question, “what are you?!”, that trans* and gender non-conforming people face too often.

And, so far it has paid off.  On Week 2, a new student arrived as a late add to the class.  I welcomed the student.  And, another student interrupted me, “um, preferred pronoun?”  I had already assumed the new student’s name (that which was provided in the university records), and failed to ask for the pronoun the student preferred used in the class.  So, I had the students, once again, announce their preferred first name and pronoun.  This time, I was ready, and gave a more coherent response for my own — “he or she is fine.”  It is my hope of hopes that the students leave the class taking this practice, or at least knowing its importance, into other arenas in their lives.  I certainly have found it worth the anxiety and fear, so I will continue to do so in future classes — and, not just in my gender and sexuality classes!

Caveats

One concern that another professor raised was forcing students to out themselves.  Without asking for pronouns, trans* and gender non-conforming students can presumably go unnoticed in your class.  When you do ask, their turn comes and they are faced with the choice to out themselves or not.  And, no matter their answer, other students may make assumptions about them.  And, choosing not to provide a pronoun may also lead others to simply assume, “oh, they’re trans.”  I, too, worry about this.  But, as Ted pointed out, the other alternative is to gender them yourself.  At some point, you as the instructor, will likely provide an assumed pronoun and gender identity before the entire class — or, another student may do so, “yeah, I agree with her.”  Asking is at least one step closer toward respecting all students’ self-definition related to gender.

Why single out gender?  I could imagine someone might ask that self-definition should either be asking nothing of our students (and ourselves as instructors) or asking them to orally complete a demographic profile: and preferred race?  and preferred sexual identity?  It is important to note how frequently we rely on pronouns to refer to other people.  And, those pronouns are inherently gendered.  Repeatedly saying, “Eric said… and Eric did… and Ted asked Eric…”, feels more jarring (at least to the ear) than “ze said”, “he spoke on,” and “I saw her.”  We rarely reference race, income, or other social identities unless we are actually talking about them — unlike the pervasive use of gendered pronouns.

I note that I feel comfortable asking up to 20 students their preferred name and pronoun.  Now, thinking about professors at my graduate institution who taught classes of a few hundred students, I cannot imagine bothering to take attendance, nor outing myself or asking others to do so before hundreds of people.  So, the size of the class may influence how effectively this could be done, and really, whether you as the instructor feel comfortable doing so.

Although it may feel that this is easiest in the social sciences or humanities, especially in classes on gender and sexuality, I believe it can (and should) be implemented in every class.  But, it may prove more effective when a set of ground rules have been established for civil, respectful classroom discussion.  My gender and sexuality students may have been more amenable to this approach to teaching because we also spent time creating a list of ground rules — which included the use of “oops, ouch, educate” per one student’s suggestion.

As I noted, I am trying this out for the first time myself.  So, I hope to provide a follow up in a semester when I begin asking for preferred pronouns in each class (and maybe even meetings that I facilitate).

Additional Resources For Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming Students

  • “Preferred Gender Pronouns: For Faculty” [download]
  • Teaching Transgender”  by Tre Wentling, Elroi Windsor, Kristen Schilt, and Betsy Lucal.  2008.  Teaching Sociology 36: 49-57.
  • Trans 101” (Sylvia Rivera Law Project)

“Encountering Heterosexual Normality: A Narrative”

Haigen Huang

Haigen Huang

About Haigen Huang: I am a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) at the University of Missouri-Columbia. My research is in educational policy and leadership, but I also write stories of LGBT international students.  Hopefully, at some point in my career I can combine these two.  I grew up in a small rural community in southern China and attended Beijing Normal University for my master’s degree in comparative education.

Below, I have shared a narrative that I wrote in the spring: “Encountering Heterosexual Normality: A Narrative.”

___

Whether in my home country China or in the United States, living a life that fails to meet expected heterosexual norms oftentimes is associated with emotional nervousness, anxiety, and fear. I hid anything which might reveal my sexuality and have rationalized avoidance of mentioning my relationship. When I was eventually courageous enough to come out after getting engaged in the United States, I encountered the following scenarios.

Stories of My Engagement Ring        

When a ring sits displayed in a store, it is just a commercial product. But after the purchase and someone begins to wear it, the ring lives with human stories.

“Let’s take the engagement rings off when we visit my parents,” my fiancé Chris suggested.

“Yes…” I did not insist and I did not ask why.

It was my first visit to Chris’ parents’ house, and also his first time back home after telling his family about me. I understood that he did not want to throw them too much information all at once, to introduce me so soon after telling them he is gay and then to tell them that we were already engaged.

About six weeks after we started wearing our rings, we put them in the drawer of a night stand before setting off to Nebraska from Missouri. Over the next couple of days, I always felt something was missing. After having worn my ring for almost one and half months, I felt as if it had been part of my hand. I liked the way it looked; I liked the smooth inner surface, the rounded silver touching my skin; I enjoyed turning it around my finger. More importantly, it was the symbol of my love and commitment.  Nevertheless, we decided not to show our rings to Chris’ parents, at least not during the first visit.

During the five-hour long drive, I could not imagine what it would be like in his parents’ place. The rhythm of the engine and raindrops hitting the windshield induced me to nap from time to time in the passenger seat. Remembering that Chris’ mother said that she was happy as long as he was happy comforted me but not enough to keep my hands from sweating. We did not talk much on the way.

It was a pleasant visit, but a few times I had to stop myself from saying something about the engagement. My fiancé’s parents welcomed me with open arms. They were happy, in part because their son eventually opened up to them about his personal relationship after being distant from them for at least ten years.  It was easy for me to be known as a gay man in front of Chris’ parents. I was introduced as his boyfriend. Everything they know about me started from there. But when it comes to my coming out to friends who assumed me to be heterosexual, I have different stories.

Coming Out To Friends And Colleagues

On the first Monday after our engagement, I felt nervous to wear my ring. I shared an office with 12 other graduate research assistants, most of them also my classmates. Whenever I heard footsteps approaching the office, I would feel my heart beat suddenly. I was afraid someone would see the ring and ask about my relationship. By e-mail one of my friends told me:

There is no reason to be afraid, it is a handsome ring and you should be proud to wear it because a special guy gave it to you. Some may think it is a wedding band and unless they know you very well, will not say anything or ask who.

But still I could not force myself out of the mode of being hyper-sensitive to anybody walking into the office.

Eventually, somebody came in. She needed my help for a class assignment. To explain what should be done and show where to find the resources online, I had to type. I started typing with one hand so my ring remained under my left sleeve. It was awkward especially when she asked, “Is your left hand okay?” I had to try very hard not to show my nervousness, but I didn’t need to type much and I got by without behaving too awkwardly.  However, when a second colleague approached me an hour later, I decided not to use the same trick. Instead, I took off the ring with my hand still in my pocket. That moment, I felt lucky I had a ring a bit larger than the right size.

Awkward moments came when I put on the ring, but they did not go away when I took it off or hid it. I don’t believe the ring had the magic power that the one in The Lord of the Rings does, and no supernatural force has cast any spell on it. Nevertheless, to wear or not was a problem. With me being trapped in this dilemma, that Monday went by slowly. On the one hand, I wanted my relationship to be recognized; on the other hand, I was nervous about being recognized, and I didn’t know how to tell my colleagues about my engagement.

It was frightening to imagine telling anybody that I was engaged with a man. I remembered the awkwardness and sweating when I told a faculty that I was in a long-term relationship with a man. I could hear my own heart beat when I was talking. My face was burning, and I think I stuttered. Although she had always been my most supportive colleague and I had no regrets about coming out to her a few weeks before my engagement, I did not want to experience a round of similar nervousness again. So I turned to social media and pictures, and eventually I posted my engagement photos on a website that most of my friends and colleagues use. Many of them gave their congratulations, except one friend in Kansas.

“What is this? Are you kidding me?”

That is a comment on my photo of Chris and me showing our rings in front a courthouse. I did not answer him, although I was a little irritated. Instead I posted a message:

Thinking about a comment on my engagement picture, I wonder whether I should respond directly. Maybe not, I might just pretend that I had never read it. I don’t feel like getting into a debate with someone potentially having a firm belief that homosexuality is something wrong. I assume the comment meant to boo my engagement. But I am sorry I don’t believe there is anything wrong that I love a man.

My friends and colleagues backed me up with comments such as:

Some folks have not yet learned that people are not all ‘wired’ in identical ways. Our diversity enriches us, and your behavior has shown me and others that you care for other people.

And:

Don’t worry about it. Just delete them or block them from seeing your posts.

One of them even responded to that comment directly in a challenging way: “Why should this be a joke?”

Eventually the author of the comment apologized. I was grateful for the support I had but I also felt I was seeking approval from others, as if I were asking, “I am gay — I hope that’s okay?”

I knew I might encounter negative reactions, especially after being exposed to comparisons of homosexuality to incest, bestiality, and polygamy for almost four years since coming to the United States. It kind of surprised me that I received only one negative comment. Although I do not believe that being gay is morally wrong and queer theory has long challenged the hegemony or normality of heterosexuality (Pinar, 2003), trying to live openly as a gay man brings with it constant nervousness, awareness of my sexuality as something that might cause conflict with some people, and the feeling that I must seek approval from others. As one of my friends said, “Gay people are always coming out in one way or another.”

From my own experience, I believe that “men’s desire for men does not constitute some ‘third sex’” (Pinar, 2003, p. 359). Nevertheless, being “socialized” to confirm heterosexual performances (Butler, 1990) I did hide my non-conforming behaviors. For more than ten years after I became aware of my homosexuality when I was a teenager, I never mentioned anything related to my sexuality in front of my straight friends. Even after I decided to be who I think I am, I encountered awkward moments such as hiding my ring under my sleeve or in my pocket.

Decision Not to Come Out to Family

It is now May 2013, and I’m going back to my hometown for the summer. It is a small rural village in southern China. I lived there for 18 years before going away to college. As a native speaker, I do not know if words like ‘homosexuality’ or ‘gay’ even exist in the dialect of the village.

In junior high school when my male teenage classmates were chatting about their crushes on girls, I never felt interested. I understood what they were saying but I had no motivation to participate in. And I never did. As years passed, I always thought I would fall in love with a woman and get married just like everybody else. That was the given path for every man, at least I perceived so.

When I started to be aware that I had cruses on boys, I kept it to myself. I still don’t know why I knew it was something I should not acknowledge. Possibly I sensed that it was something ‘abnormal’ because I had never heard or seen homosexuality or same-sex relationships. There were no confrontations, no awkwardness because I kept my interest in men to myself. Both in my junior high and senior school, it was considered to be a good thing not to have a girlfriend. Teachers and parents always worried that students having girlfriends or boyfriends was a distraction to pass the competitive College Entrance Examination (or Gaokao in Chinese). In college, it was still okay not to have a girlfriend. Most of my straight male classmate and friends did not have a girlfriend. I got by without anyone nagging until recent years.

Several years ago, my family began to pressure me to find a woman and marry her. In a village like mine getting married — of course heterosexually — is the most significant duty in a person’s life. I am approaching 30, and they have become impatient with me. One of my relatives tried to introduce me a young woman from my hometown. This relative knew that I would not come home soon because of my study in the United States.  However, she insisted that I chat with the woman online and arrange to meet her whenever I return to China. I cannot remember what I was thinking then, but I did add the young woman’s online chat account. Fortunately, she never showed up, which turned out to be a good excuse.

Whenever I am about to say that I have a boyfriend, I hold it back. I don’t know how to explain my relationship to my family, and they keep pressuring me as long as I talk with them on the phone. Sometimes persuasion becomes an argument if I allow myself to be irritated and talk back.

I should focus on my study and I will think about marriage later!

In response, they adopt a serious and doctrinaire tone.

You are almost thirty. It is the age for having your own family. You know that even your younger childhood friends are married and have kids now! You are well educated…you should know this better than me!

There were times one of the relatives even said,

What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you get married like everybody else?

Members of my family told me that if I get married and have kids soon, they would volunteer to take care of them in China while I am still in the U.S.

After these uncomfortable conversations and arguments with my family, I decided not to wear the ring during my visit in the summer — that is to say, not to inform them of my engagement and my sexuality, at least not until I return to the U.S. I don’t feel that I am ready to challenge their beliefs. I guess I need to be an actor and play my old role for another summer. I’m not sure how I would feel or think about my summer performance. I haven’t been back to my hometown for two years. In the past, when I was there I was still considered young, not yet old enough for my family to be impatient with me about marriage.

Even when I was younger, I could feel the strong expectation from my family for me to marry a girl and have children. When I was 25, my parents arranged for me to meet a young woman. Fortunately, it did not lead to anything but the woman’s rejection, because I was not showing interest.

But this expectation coerces people like me to conform to a norm that does not make sense to us. Many gay men marry women because they feel obligated to meet this expectation. According to a documentary published by the Phoenix Television (feng huang wei shi) in Hong Kong, there might be as many as ten million women in marriages with gay men in China (Liu, 2012). Most of these women (tongqi, a Chinese term for wives of gay men) are straight and they do not know their husbands are gay. The emotional isolation of these men, the shame and sense of failure to be good husbands for their wives, the fear of being discovered, and the despair and feeling of betrayal if they are ever found out are all potential consequences of the hegemony of heterosexuality.

No Conclusion Yet

On the way to my office, looking into my ring I can see myself reflected in the finely polished gold surface. I want to talk to it as if it were alive. I know I will miss it during my visit to my home town, and I hope it will continue to witness the stories of my commitment. I hope it gives me the “magic power” to further confront and challenge hegemony of heterosexuality.

A couple of professors passed and wished me good morning, and I greeted them back. Suddenly aware that I am wearing tight blue jeans, I can’t help asking myself,

Would they think that I look gay wearing these?

Before I could critique my self-consciousness about my sexuality, this question came to my mind. I paused a few seconds and laughed. At this moment, I know the journey of coming out is not yet finished and the ring has more stories to tell — stories of “coming out” to parents who believe every man should marry a woman and have children, stories of “coming out” to future colleagues and friends.

In the United States same-sex marriage became a reality in some of the states within the past 10 years, even while some still argue against homosexuality and same-sex relationships. During this year’s Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of a California law banning same-sex marriage, Charles J. Cooper argued that same-sex marriage is at odds with human procreation. The stigma of failing to conform to the heterosexual norm still pervades everything, and I must learn to be comfortable with my sexuality with support from my fiancé, his family, my friends, and colleagues, and reading feminist theory and LGBT research.

Conclusion

When I was first aware of my homosexuality as a teenager, I almost believed that I was doing something morally wrong. However, in traveling the path from growing up in a Chinese rural village to pursuing a doctoral degree in a U.S. college town, I have decided to challenge the problematic hegemony of heterosexuality. My stories do not end here as long as hegemony maintains.

But let me pause and ask myself here, does this sound like coming out storytelling? Am I presenting myself as a victim? Am I challenging the heterosexuality norm in a negative aggressive way? What do I really want to say or demonstrate? Or am I making justifications for being gay? Here it is! Being gay oftentimes requires the person to make a case, at least under the pressure to do so. That explains why we hear coming out stories over and over again. Not only do you need to make justification for being gay, but you also might do so to justify supporting same-sex relationships.

“If you’re a lawmaker who wants to ban gay marriage, you can come up with any reason you want…But if you’re a lawyer defending a gay marriage ban in court, you need an actual legal reason for your position” (Chait, 2013).

Now we see numerous politicians and senators have “evolved” coming out to support same-sex marriage in the United States. Have you ever seen anybody making a justification for being heterosexual or supporting heterosexual marriage? Of course not, unless you are out as gay and want to marry heterosexually or in-between and want to go either way.

Back to the question of whether I am justifying being gay — no!  Even if it sounds like I am, it is not my intention! The purpose of me telling these short stories is to reach people like me, as my gay identity gives me legitimacy to share these stories. As far as I know it is a challenging and stressful process to come out, which puts LGBT people under the risk of work discrimination (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Ragins, Singh, & Cornwell, 2007), and negative reaction from parents (Cramer & Roach, 1988; D’Augelli, Hershberger, & Pilkington, 1998). I do not believe that heterosexual life performances fit with gay men well, not for a lifetime.

At the end, I sincerely hope that somewhere somebody might find my stories helpful.

References

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cramer, D. W., & Roach, A. J. (1988). Coming out to mom and dad: A study of gay males and their relationships with their parents. Journal of Homosexuality, 15(3-4), 79-92.

Chait, J. (2013). Gays can’t marry because … they plan babies? Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/gays-cant-marry-because-they-plan-babies.html.

D’Augelli, A. R., Hershberger, S. L., & Pilkington, N. W. (1998). Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth and their families: Disclosure of sexual orientation and its consequences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3), 361-371.

Day, N. E., & Schoenrade, P. (1997). Staying in the closet versus coming out: Relationships between communication about sexual orientation and work attitudes. Personal Psychology, 50(1), 147-163.

Ragins, B. R., Singh, R., & Cornwell, J. M. (2007). Making the invisible visible: Fear and disclosure of sexual orientation at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 1103-1118.

Pinar, W.F. (2003). Queer theory in education. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2-4), 357-360.

Liu, C. (2012, February, 3). How to save wives of gay men (na shen me zheng jiu tong qi).  Hong Kong, China: Phoenix Satellite Television.

Think Like A Drag Queen

RuPaul

This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice

Authenticity Vs. Success

Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure.  I fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined).  Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community.  I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.

Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?

The Setup

I have done it all “right.”  Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal.  I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week.  I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule.  You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.

But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values.  Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break).  I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests.  This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list.  In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans.  And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).

Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.”  I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that.  And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”

Or, So I Thought…

So, I have done everything “right.”  But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down.  Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress.  Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this.  But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once.  Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.

And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself.  The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire.  The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes.  The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school.  The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.

Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up.  Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul.  The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.

The Meltdown

The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits.  By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years.  On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical.  By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office.   I began to cry on the drive home.  It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.

When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story.  I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now.  Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time.  After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.

Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.”  I did not want him to go there.  It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job.  And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts.  So, why would I be upset?

I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues!  Of course, no place is perfect.  And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part.  But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.

Naming It

It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right.  First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones.  This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors.  Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors.  Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.

Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself.  I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?”  The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job.  And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.

Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer.  Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May.  It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.

Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me.  I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia.  But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline.  Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest).  And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.  As I  tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules.  It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals.  To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well.  This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:

  • It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional.  It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting.  That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
  • It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places.  It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
  • It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track.  It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death.  That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.

I could go on forever.  The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things.  It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status.  And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.

The Role Of Tenure

Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free.  If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom.  I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”

  • Tomorrow is not promised to me.  The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right.  He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college.  I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
  • My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision.  They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
  • My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations.  I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago.  Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
  • Obsessing about tenure Devoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself.  Yes, blaspheme!  Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals.  If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others.  And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
  • Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right?  Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever.  And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises.  So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.

So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.”  The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success.  A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction.  That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful.  Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.

If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model.  I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers.  And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself.  And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia.  So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.

I leave you with my current musical obsession: