Jeff Kosbie On Being A “Luxury Hire” In Academia

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jeff discusses his frustration with constantly hearing that his job prospects are slim because he studies sexuality.  While typically well-intentioned, these messages from colleagues implicitly (or even explicitly) suggest that the subfield of sexualities is not of central importance to the discipline.

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On Being A “Luxury Hire”

“Just be careful — you don’t want to seem like a ‘luxury hire.’” “Be aware that you can’t get hired just for studying sexualities.” I’ve heard variants of this since I started graduate school, but especially this year being on the market. And it all comes from well-meaning people. People who really want me to get a top job as a professor. And, yeah, I get where they’re coming from. Sexuality should be central to the curriculum in law and in sociology. But it’s not. At least not how it should be. So, I need to be aware that there might be fewer jobs for people who do sexualities than for people who study federal courts or criminology or business organizations.

Strategic advice aside for a moment, I want to address the psychological impact of these messages: they really breaks you down! The cumulative impact of this is huge. It’s essentially hearing again and again that what you do just isn’t in the mainstream of the discipline. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me until some recent discussions about diversity and microaggressions. I shared some of my experience hearing these comments, and then it really hit me, wow that hurts.

I’m never anxious or stressed, even when I “should be.” But this year I’ve become anxious. A lot of the anxiety comes from how fundamentally the job market has changed since I started grad school. Anyone with my current research and publication record would be getting several interviews on both the law and sociology teaching markets in 2006, when I started grad school. Subject area aside, the expectations for getting a job have changed. It’s like I got to the finish line, only to find that the finish line had moved. So, the fact that I’m facing uncertain job prospects plays into the anxiety. But, some of it also comes from the cumulative impact of these comments.

The flip side of hearing that you could be a “luxury hire” is that if I get a job, the implication might be that it is because I study sexualities. The fact that I do really good work becomes secondary to the fact I add an extra “luxury” to a department. And somewhere implicit in this is some comment on my identity as a queer scholar. The people making these comments mean it as a comment on my scholarship, of course, but it’s hard not to take it as a comment on my identity. It can feel like a comment on whether queer scholars belong in the heart of the academy at all.

Now, of course, everyone who has said this to me has meant well. They have all had my best interests at heart. Maybe some of them didn’t think sexualities should be central to the discipline (law or sociology), but most of them did. Most of the people saying this to me support my work, want me to succeed with it, and think it is important. They saw themselves as giving me strategic advice.

So, part of the challenge is how to impart this strategic advice without the microaggression that devalues my work and identity. And I want to recognize that strategic advice is important! Even if the cumulative impact of hearing it is harsh, the truth is that I don’t know of any law school that is hiring just for law and sexuality. Some sociology departments hire for sexualities, but those positions are few and far between. So yes, any scholar studying sexualities should probably address other academic areas, as well. If I were mentoring a new graduate student interested in sexualities, I would be remiss not to mention that.

What Are the Real Concerns Behind This Strategic Advice?

There are ways to give this advice that reaffirm the importance and centrality of sexualities to the disciplines of law and sociology. For starters, at least reaffirm that you think that sexuality is or should be central to the discipline. That actually goes a long way. There’s also a difference between hearing “it’s okay that you research law and sexuality, but you need to do something mainstream as well” and “how can we package your work to show how you speak to more mainstream concerns with a unique and important voice because you research law and sexuality.” The latter implicitly values sexualities and asks how we can make it relevant to the mainstream in a way that the former message doesn’t.

One of the most common concerns about studying sexualities is that I might be too specialized. But this is not unique to sexualities. Every scholar faces this concern. We all have to be specialized enough to have command of some area and to add our unique insights. But, we cannot be so specialized that we are only speaking to ourselves. We certainly need to be able to teach classes that are much broader than our individual research. So like most graduate students, I can benefit from mentoring on how to talk about how specialized my work is. But the concern should not be that I’m too specialized because I study sexualities. People who study tax law might be too specialized if they can only teach a particular class on corporate tax and nothing else. The real concern is my ability to use my research on sexualities to speak to other literatures and to teach classes. So let’s talk about that, and not whether sexualities is too specialized.

What about the concern that I won’t find a job? There are just not enough (or any) jobs in law and sexuality. But this concern also isn’t unique to sexualities. People doing legal history or sociology of culture also face this concern. For almost all of us, it probably does not make strategic sense to only apply to jobs in our subfields. We need to think about how we can apply to jobs beyond our own subfields and make strategic decisions about how broadly we want to try to do that. Sometimes it means taking two runs at the market: once with a more focused, only-in-my-subfield approach, and a second time with a broader anything-I-can-conceivably-get approach.

I guess it comes back to the idea that there’s a big difference between being told: “the discipline doesn’t support sexualities as much as it should, but you bring a unique and important voice to the core of the discipline because you do sexualities, so let’s figure out how to sell that” versus “you need to recognize that sexualities isn’t valued as central to the discipline and you could be seen as a luxury hire so you need to do something to address that.” All of my core advisors fall into the former, far more supportive and helpful camp. But I’ve heard advice from the latter camp enough that it’s still a strong current.

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About Jeff

Jeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University. He will defend his dissertation and receive both degrees in Spring 2015. Jeff’s research theorizes law as a field for constructing and contesting identities around gender and sexuality. He studies how law creates and perpetuates inequalities and how it is used to challenge inequalities. His dissertation uses original data to tell the history of the major LGBT legal organizations. Drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, he argues that internal organizational debates drive strategic decision making processes at these organizations. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern University, and The Graduate School at Northwestern University. Jeff’s website is at jkosbie.com.

On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

“My Kind of Critical Sociology” – By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US, as well as reflections on teaching gender and sexuality.  

Below, Jeff has allowed me to share his reflection on doing critical scholarship in sociology.

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My Kind of Critical Sociology

Jeff Kosbie

Jeff Kosbie

I recently discussed my research with a transgender activist who I respect. This activist was extremely critical of my work. This post has taken a long time to write, but it is my attempt to process and use this criticism productively. I’ll admit, I was caught off guard by this criticism. I did not expect this activist to be as enthusiastic about my work as many of the lawyers I interview, but I also did not expect this wholesale rejection.

I explained the basic outline of my project: I’m studying the history and development of the major LGBT legal organizations, paying particular attention to strategies around HIV/AIDS, same-sex marriage, and transgender discrimination. This activist asked why I was interested in talking. They only get involved in research that they see as productive. At best, my research might just document the marginalization of issues around race, poverty, and transgender identity. At worst (and more likely), my research would be a celebratory narrative of how we have achieved some fiction of legal equality.

As we continued talking, this activist explained that I should be looking at the literature on the neoliberal state and the nonprofit industrial complex. But even if I looked at this literature now, it would be too late. They worried that I might just tack on marginalization as an afterthought. If I really wanted to explain the structure of the modern mainstream movement, I needed to design a study that started from its conception in these literatures, and I needed to focus on other organizations than I am. The more interesting project, they argued, is one that examines alternative ways of organizing and using law, is a project that rejects the nonprofit industrial complex model.

To their credit, this activist was sympathetic and explained that academia drives people to de-radicalize their work. I got the sense that they would not have criticized my work if I did not seek out their involvement. And the conversation did make me realize how much my dissertation has changed: the earliest versions of my project involved focusing on a small organization in Chicago that works on gender self-determination and prison abolition. In that version, the project would have much more explicitly grappled with questions of how rejecting the mainstream legal model opens up alternate models of what it means to use the law in support of a movement.

After I got over the initial shock and anger from this interaction, I began thinking about what it means to me to do critical sociology. Maybe my research is not radical, but I also do not accept the characterization of it as lacking any critical edge. Questions of secondary marginalization have informed the research design all along. I chose to focus on three issues that will let me grapple with how organizations define both the center and margins of their work. My historical study will let me see how these processes play out over time.

Sure, I’m not only telling a story about secondary marginalization. I’m telling an important theoretical story about organizational development. And I’m telling an important piece of LGBT history that is not out there. The history of the LGBT legal organizations is largely absent from work on LGBT history. I want to tell this story the way the lawyers involved understand it. I want to capture as much of the empirical data as I can. I want to be accurate and complete.

But mine is not a clean story of moving towards a defined “victory”. It’s not a story of our collective triumph. It’s a messy story. It’s a story of where we’ve been and where we still have to go; a story of lurching, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, often sideways. It recounts the progress we have made but it also explores tensions and disagreements within the movement. My story celebrates key legal victories but also asks about the work that isn’t being done. I grapple with how lawyers approach the strategic tradeoffs inherent in their work. Mine is a research agenda that seeks to understand how real people understand the law. It seeks to understand the obstacles to building coalitions, building institutions, building organizations, winning political support and cultural acceptance.

I’m not dismissing the sort of critical theory approach that this activist pushed on me. I read, cite, and use literature from that approach. But that’s not the kind of work I want to do. A critical theory approach might offer key insights into the relationship between neoliberal politics and promotion of marriage as a goal. But a critical theory approach cannot explain how lawyers in the movement grapple with the meaning of marriage. It cannot explain why different organizations take up marriage at different times and in different ways. It cannot explain the complex ways lawyers position marriage in broader goals that sometimes support and sometimes challenge neoliberal politics. As Mary Bernstein explains, even when activists formally target the law, they might be interested in other institutions like the media or the family (37 NYU Rev. of L. and Social Change 23, 2013).

In her recent book, Urvashi Vaid writes “These essays clearly reflect my ambivalence about the movement: frustration at its blinders, coupled with a persistent confidence that the many people within the LGBT community committed to challenging race, class, and gender exclusion are critical to its future” (Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics). Vaid writes as a seasoned movement veteran who has spent years working on these goals. She recognizes the importance of formal legal equality, even while criticizing how ideas about “equality” are used to white-wash the movement. She recognizes the important funding work done by classic grant work, even while criticizing its class-blinders.

This is the inspiration for the kind of critical sociology that I want to do. It’s a critical sociology that grapples with the empirical messiness. It tells an important story of LGBT marginalization. It shows the different ways that legal organizations have used law to support a broader movement and the different relationships that they have had with a broader movement. And, yes, it even celebrates how activists use the law to challenge that marginalization. But it doesn’t simply celebrate this story. It grapples with the tensions within the story. It grapples with what work is and is not done. And it shows how the activists involved recognize and attempt to address these tensions.

So what do I take away from my interaction with this activist? I’m taking two key lessons. First, I can recognize this as one criticism I might encounter. If I encounter this criticism again, I know I’ve thought about it and can better answer it. And two, more important, I need to realize I’m not talking to an audience in critical theory. I would love if that audience can read and find value in my work, just as I read and find value in critical theory. But I’m speaking to audiences in LGBT history, in law and sexuality, and in sociology. And I’m comfortable with the contribution I’m making. I’m doing my kind of critical sociology.