Activism As A Form Of Scholarly Expertise

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

Why I Am Committed To Fighting Oppression In Academia

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

“Facts about the Black vagina — the hardest working vagina in America.”

A few days ago, I watched in awe as activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw read her poem, “The Black Vagina,” at a production of The Vagina Monologues in Harlem, NY.  Unfortunately, I did not actually observe from the audience in the infamous Apollo Theatre.  Rather, it was featured on V-Day: Until The Violence Stops – a documentary about productions of The Vagina Monologues and other activism to end violence against women around the world (see the trailer here).

Eve Ensler’s play-turned-global-movement impressed me.  But, observing Crenshaw – looking fierce in a beautiful red gown ready for some glamorous Hollywood awards show – speak truths to what so many Black women in America know, I went back to my usual place of self-doubt: what am I doing with my life?  Here was the scholar who developed the theoretical framework of intersectionality and, today, a scholar-activist at the forefront of #SayHerName movement to end violence against Black women.  And, without a hint of doubt, without a word of apology for her presence or explanation for why she wasn’t doing research instead of working in the community, there she was on that Apollo stage singing the praises of the Black vagina.

I spent the rest of the day deep in reflection.  “I’m not doing enough as an activist.  Why do I even call myself an activist, a scholar-activist, an intellectual activist?”  Unfortunately, the question — am I enough — is a commonly occurring one for me.  And, I realize not feeling [X] enough — skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, Black enough, gay enough, feminine enough — is not unique to me.  But, there is something unique about my sense of being inadequate as an activist — and it’s not just that I simultaneously worry that I’m too much of an activist, that the work that won’t count toward tenure may actually cost me tenure.

The work to which I am referring is this — this blog, the column on Inside Higher Ed, the talks I’ve given, panels I’ve served on and organized, the long-term effort to call attention to and eliminate injustice in academia.  Even as I write what sounds impressive, I feel as though I padded the previous sentence to silence the voice that once asked, “so, all you do is blog?”  My critics, largely contained in an anonymous wiki for cowardly trolls, accuse me of being overly dramatic, preachy, self-righteous, and whiny; worse, they suggest that my sense of injustice in academia is really just the product of mental illness or even mental disabilities (putting it politely relative to the more offensive language they use).  This is a form of gaslighting, and it has proven somewhat successful.  But, the trolls aren’t alone in leading me to question my academic justice work.  It doesn’t count for tenure (and, realistically, is potentially a liability); and, my graduate training served to “beat the activist out” of me because activism and academia supposedly don’t mix.

In other words, there are two powerful messages that come from my training, the expectations of me for tenure, and my critics.  The most obvious is that this work is risky.  And, the other is that there really isn’t a problem to address.  Academics ask, what injustice?  What discrimination?  What sexual harassment?  What motherhood penalty?  What exploitation of grad students and contingent faculty?  The latter message has successfully led me to doubt myself.  What’s that expression — that if you repeat something enough others will believe it’s true, especially if you talk loudly enough.  (It worked for a certain elected official with no political experience and ample experience as a bigot and rapist…)

This work, however, is too important to second-guess myself.  So, I’m planting my flag into the ground to declare that I am here to unapologetically fight for justice in the academy.  Below, I offer a few reasons why this work is important.

Why Working For Academic Justice Is Important

Because Academic Injustice Exists

Perhaps the most important reason to fight for justice in academia is, well, because there is pervasive injustice in academia.  Yes, to my surprise as a first-year graduate student, academia is not immune to systems of oppression.  Classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism — systems of oppression that are embedded in every social institution — have been at home in every college and university from their creation.  These manifest as everyday microaggressions, subtle and overt discrimination, disparities and leaky pipelines, rampant sexual violence, interpersonal and institutional barriers to accessibility for all people, prioritizing profit over justice, prioritizing academic freedom over academic justice, curricula that erase or tokenize or exotify oppressed communities, and so forth.  That oppression exists in academia should suffice as enough reason to fight it.

Because Academia Reproduces Social Inequality

Unfortunately, the academy does not merely reflect the aforementioned systems of oppression; it also reproduces them in the larger society.  There is ample evidence that education, the supposed “greater equalizer,” actually exacerbates inequality.  Think about who goes to college: who performed well enough to get in, who attended a high enough quality school to get in, who can afford to go, who has the cultural capital to know how to apply.  Among those who attend college, there are disparities between those who to go community colleges and four-year colleges, between those who go to state schools and those who go to private schools, between those who graduate and those who never do.  Even with a degree in hand, there are disparities by academic major, quality in the training received, and additional opportunities like studying abroad and internships.  There are some statistics that leave one to wonder what higher education is doing for oppressed groups, if anything positive.

And, it isn’t just at the undergraduate level.  It is also in graduate education, and among staff and faculty.  Let me highlight a few examples for faculty.  Take the gender and race wage gaps.  There are several manifestations of oppression in academia that contribute to these disparities: discrimination against people of color and women (especially those with kids) in hiring, tenure, promotion, and raises; harassment, which undermines a scholars’ productivity and well-being; disproportionate levels of undervalued (and usually unpaid) service, especially “diversity work“; the devaluing of gender studies, women’s studies, racial and ethnic studies, and cultural studies; racial and gender bias in publishing; racial and gender bias in course evaluations; the exclusion of women and people of color from high-status professional networks; the overrepresentation of women and people of color in poorly-paid, overburdened, temporary contingent faculty positions.  You know, just to name a few things that exacerbate the broader patterns of wage disadvantages for oppressed folks.

Because Inequality In Academia Compounds Social Inequality

Since scholars from marginalized backgrounds were already oppressed before pursuing an academic career, injustice in academia further compounds the oppression we experience, thereby making the problem worse.  Black academics, for example, cannot separate the racism they experience after they leave work from the racism they experienced at work.  It doesn’t matter the source, shit is shit, and it stinks all the same.

I study discrimination and health, so the compounding affect on a scholar’s health comes to mind first.  Discrimination is a stressful experience.  Even just agonizing over whether the negative outcome one has just experienced was the product of discrimination is stressful.  In giving privileged others the benefit of the doubt (because, counter to accusations of “crying wolf” or “playing the [fill in the blank marginalized identity] card”, no one wants to acknowledge that they were discriminated against), we only continue to stress over the event in question.  This kind of stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate, it impedes your immune system, and it hinders your ability to make healthy choices regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity — basically, discrimination kills.  The stress of “teaching while Black” compounds the stress of “driving while Black,” and the worry for the safety of one’s Black teen-aged children innocently hanging out with their friends, and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or booze one uses to forget the day’s troubles, and the racial bias in the health care one receives, and the worry about what is to come of this country now that a known racist is running it, and on and on.

Together, this means that our oppressed scholars cannot do their best work, and it hurts them in getting hired and tenured and promoted.  It means we may be more likely to have to take medical leaves, or retire early, or find a new job, or leave academia all together, or even die earlier.  Besides illness and death, the consequences of discrimination and inequality in academia compound other outcomes of social inequality (e.g., wage disparities, discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending, the burden of caregiving and financially supporting relatives also impacted by discrimination, etc.)

Because Academic Injustice Hurts Science And Higher Learning

Addressing injustice in academia is important because, on the whole, we are not doing our best work.  Academic injustice is a threat to science and higher learning.  Certain voices and perspectives are excluded from conference panels, works cited, journals, and course syllabi due to rampant bias.  Entire fields like queer/LGBT/sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, fat studies, and disability studies are underresourced, underfunded, and understaffed on college campuses because they make central oppressed communities.  As noted above, discrimination and harassment undermine oppressed scholars’ ability to do their best work, to put their work to use, to be taken seriously by their colleagues.

I imagine we routinely experience a brain drain in academia owing to the 50 percent drop-out rate among grad students, and perhaps many oppressed scholars with PhDs who eventually leave academia for the sake of their well-being or because of shitty wages as an adjunct.  Diversity in academia is not merely some liberal political project; it is how science advances.  Actively excluding oppressed scholars, or failing to prevent such exclusion, is a political project — it’s called white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, class oppression, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism.

Because Academic Injustice Undermines Our Ability To Fight For Broader Social Justice

A related reason is that leaving injustice in our ranks unaddressed undermines our ability to address injustice beyond the ivory tower.  First of all, we’re hypocrites to pursue research that is critical of the rest of society, including other social institutions like law, the government, medicine, military, the labor market, religion, the and family, while oppression manifests in academic institutions.  Yet, somehow, we have the rest of society convinced we’re all a bunch of liberals promoting various social justice agendas; we successfully convince prospective grad students who want to make a difference in the world that academia is the right profession for them.

We are not doing our best work as teachers, mentors, artists, scientists, advocates, and analysts. We uphold tenure-track jobs at Research I universities as the ideal path for every PhD despite the adjunctification of higher education, riding that sinking ship on its way to the bottom of the ocean.  We could work in and with the community and partner with organizations outside of the ivory tower to reestablish our importance to society as a whole. Acknowledging my optimism here, I wonder whether that would help to reverse the pattern of drying up government funding for higher education and, in turn, the trend of replacing tenure-track positions with temporary adjunct positions.

Because — Oh, Fuck! — Trump Was Elected President (Fuck!)

Finally, now more than ever before, there is an urgent need for the academy to stand up to bigotry, violence, xenophobia, bullying, surveillance, and other social problems that threaten to get worse under the incoming presidential regime.  Academic isolationism is a foolish strategy — just look where it has gotten us thus far (read: declining state and federal funding, adjunctification, exploding student debt, irrelevance to the rest of society).  We are perhaps complicit in political rise of a racist rapist with no political experience.

But, it is not too late.  We can stop clinging to the myths of meritocracy and objectivity that only serve to distract us to the rampant inequality within our ranks.  We can stop prioritizing academic freedom, which merely tolerates academics’ controversial work while also enabling bigoted scholars oppressive antics; instead, we can bravely prioritize academic justice — an intentional effort to use academic work to promote justice.

I hope that I have convinced some readers why we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking inequality in academia isn’t that bad, or perhaps that addressing it is no better than “navel-gazing.”  Even if not, I find myself more firm in my commitment to fight academic injustice and to promote academic justice.  We’re wasting our time here if we continue to allow oppression to manifest in our profession.

Radical Reprioritizing: Tenure, Self-Care, And Scholar-Activism

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.

I am currently wrapping up my third year as a tenure-track professor at the University of Richmond – an elite, small liberal arts college in Richmond, VA. This semester is the first time I am teaching courses I have taught at least once before; and I’m teaching the “two” of my 3-2 yearly course load. Finally, I have a little breathing room to really advance my research.

But, the service demands, and my own campus, community, and professional involvement have increased with each passing year. As far as I know, I am the only out Black queer faculty member on my campus – one of few LGBTQ faculty in general, and one of few faculty of color in general. My classes tend to have a heavy queer, (Black) feminist, and antiracist focus. And, I make an effort to be visible on campus, hopefully letting my fellow “unicorns” on campus know they are not alone. Students’ need for me to be a teacher, mentor, and role model seems particularly great at our small, slightly diverse university.

And, then there is my intellectual activism, especially my blog, Conditionally Accepted, which I hope will expand into a bigger initiative for change in the academy. There are the symposia, conference panels, and workshops at which I have spoken about discrimination, exclusion, and health problems in academia. Though less consistently, there is work I have done to make academic research and knowledge accessible to the community. Trying to earn tenure to stay in academia, while also working to change academia, sometimes I feel as though I have two jobs – and those two jobs are typically at odds with one another, unfortunately, to the detriment to my health.

I am undeniably spread thin. Due to fear of unclear and biased tenure expectations, I do my best to exceed what I suspect that I need on the research front. (Don’t we all aim for that “slam-dunk” tenure case? And, at what cost?). I sometimes push even harder on the research front to “compensate” for my advocacy – again, owing to fear of how others’ perceive my approach to being a scholar. Despite the fears that my blogging would cost me my job, I’ve kept at it since I started my position in August 2013; I’m now the editor of an Inside Higher Ed career advice column that is read nationwide (at least among academics). I’m frequently invited to speak on campus, attend various events, facilitate discussions, and so forth. I’m flattered. But, I’m also frustrated that the campus hasn’t employed more faculty like me to share the labor. For, that’s what all of this is – work. Work that is incredibly important, and affirming, and enjoyable. But, I’m only one person!

I’m only one person. A person who has suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder since 2010. An academic who was traumatized by graduate school, and is now seeing a therapist to begin the recovery process. And, now I suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, probably from the anxiety and trauma. And, I finally got over myself and started taking Lexapro. Health-wise, I’m a mess, or at least a work-in-progress. Why push myself so hard at work? If these were physical health problems, I would not hesitate to rest, resist demands of work, pace myself, and seek proper treatment.

Radical Reprioritizing

Recently, my perspective has changed. I have shifted toward taking the long-view. I want to be in the academy for a loooooong, long time. I’m coming for the structures and culture that allows for the exploitation of, yet lack of support for, minority scholars. I want to educate thousands of students about the social problems of the world, and what they can do to solve them. Maybe I’ll serve as a dean or provost one day; hell, maybe I’ll defy the odds and become a university president. Or, forget thinking inside of the box; maybe I’ll start my own academic justice organization, working with multiple universities rather than within just one.

With that in mind, I have realized it is time to radically reprioritize. I have identified the two most important goals for my future as an academic and intellectual activist: 1) get healthy; and, 2) earn tenure.

Self-care is my number one goal. That means making a serious effort to do the things that will promote my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I hate exercise, but it’s good for me. I can never seem to find the time to meditate, but I have to let my brain recharge just as I let my body recharge nightly. I’ll continue to limit work to 8am-5pm on weekdays (with no work on weekends, of course), with a mandatory lunch break for leisure reading, seeing friends on campus, or walking. I will continue to see my therapist, take my anti-anxiety medication, and use workbooks and private journaling to recover from the trauma and anxiety. I realize that I will be useless to everyone if I am sick and suffering or have a limited capacity for anything other survival. And, to be grim, I can’t help anyone if I die young. I deserve to be healthy and happy!

Earning tenure means lifetime job security at my current institution – an incredible privilege these days, even in the academy. It means more freedom to take chances in the classroom, in my research, and even in my advocacy. Tenure means power and access to make meaningful change on campus, in my discipline, and in the academy in general. It will also come with the responsibility to be in service to other academics, serving on various committees, mentoring junior faculty, and becoming involved in faculty governance. I find six years on the tenure-track tends to encourage junior scholars to play it safe, prioritize their own career and status over change and service, and promotes worry and mental illness. But, it is, at worst, a necessary evil to make real change.

Together, these goals help me to determine whether I can accept or take on a new invitation, initiative, or opportunity. For example, when I received a last-minute invitation to facilitate an on-campus discussion about racism scheduled for late in the evening, I quickly declined. Staying late and providing the necessary emotional energy would not have enhanced my health, and I am well aware it would do little to strengthen my case for tenure. But, I did finally agree to attend enVision – a social justice weekend retreat hosted by my campus’s Office of Common Ground; I found it incredibly affirming to interact with students outside of the traditional classroom context on these issues. Blogging doesn’t help me for tenure, per se, but it is a necessary outlet for me to vent about injustices that I and others have experienced, to build community, and advocate for change. Unfortunately, I realize there are still some things that will help for tenure that aren’t so enjoyable or health-enhancing – like networking at conferences, occasionally publishing in high-impact journals, etc. As I said, it’s a necessary evil; I can chalk it up to job security as a matter of health and my livelihood.

But, admittedly, there is also a third focus: my post-tenure future. I have heard the horror stories of post-tenure depression. Junior scholars who keep their mouths shut and their heads down find that they are lost when they raise their heads upon receiving tenure. I am beginning to work toward the career I want for myself as an Associate (and eventual Full?) Professor. Maybe my research will catch up with my passion and advocacy; that is, I could turn blogging into actual research on injustices in academia. Or, maybe my joke that Conditionally Accepted will serve as the launching pad for my academic talk show, Academic T with Denise, will actually become a reality. (I could live with just a podcast like On Being, though.) There is life after tenure; so, I’m doing what I need to to have both of those (life and tenure), but also doing the groundwork for my goals for intellectual activism post-tenure.

I am fortunate to have friends, family, and colleagues who support me in these endeavors. I realize that this is not afforded to everyone. But, I also recognize that these concerns – job security, health, and needing to make a difference – are particularly heightened for me as a Black queer person. That is, maybe I’d be stressed, but not mentally ill and medicated, if I were a white cishet man. Maybe I’d be a touch nervous about tenure, but not concerned that my work would be trivialized as “me-search” – even if I studied the lives of other privileged people. Maybe, maybe, maybe – but that is my reality (for now). I need to stick around along enough to ensure that this is not the reality of future unicorn scholars.