How I Became An Intellectual Activist

Ford panel

I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school.  This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early.  Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline.  The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.

At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.”  My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me.  I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months.  (Can you imagine it?  I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)

“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia

Activism In Childhood And College

My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK.  My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].

I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it.  Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.

Graduate School As Trauma

Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.

Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.

When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:

  • First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
  • Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
  • The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
  • The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.

Conditionally Accepted in Academia

I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.

Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.

Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.

Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership.  Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.

The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism

I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.

Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.

So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.

But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.

This Blog Is Trauma On Display

Eric - Red Scream

This is the most significant public essay that I have ever written. And, it is the most difficult for me write. I imagine by the essay’s end, some readers will feel a greater sense of sympathy for me – and, Goddess help you if you can empathize. Others may find confirmation in their assessment that I am crazy, never to return again to this site. Still others may be unmoved because what I share here is unsurprising based on my earlier writing. Let’s get on with it then.

I was traumatized by my graduate training. My six years in grad school – the journey to a PhD and the tenure-track position that I currently hold – also landed me in therapy two years after graduation. I began seeing a therapist over the summer because I have not been fully enjoying the job for which I fought so hard. For two years, I have lived in fear that I will be fired or denied tenure because of my politics, my activism, my identities, my research, my teaching – all of the very qualities that got me the job in the first place. I have experienced anxiety about how I dress, how I interact with students and colleagues, what I write on this blog, and what advocacy I pursue on and off campus. I haven’t enjoyed my job, and have rarely felt fully present at work; admittedly, I feel a creeping suspicion that I would quit before tenure if I were to continue this way.

I (re)created Conditionally Accepted right after I graduated from Indiana University in 2013. I was fed up with challenges that I had experienced, finding out later how common these barriers were. I had been through things I now know others had, as well, but without the benefit of access to others’ stories and wisdom. There is no reason why any grad student should feel as though they are alone in instances of patterned inequalities and problems in the academy.

On this blog, I have been quite vocal about these challenges. At one point, I even reflected on experiencing “grad school garbage,” alluding to trauma and PTSD. In private journaling, I noticed that I have casually used the term trauma. And, I mentioned the term in sessions with my therapist. But, it took hearing him say it for me to realize how fitting the term is for my experiences and their lasting impact.

“Eric, you experienced a trauma,” my therapist said. I rejected his preliminary diagnosis. I responded that trauma is rape, combat, or having your house burn down. Who gets traumatized in pursuit of an academic degree? Apparently, I did. Eventually, I accepted his assessment. I felt a sense of relief to have a label for my awful experiences, for an outsider to validate just how bad it was. But, it also felt (and still feels) embarrassing. Some peers loved grad school. I was traumatized by it. What’s different about me? What’s wrong with me? Why me? Was it really that bad?

In a later session, my therapist asked about the content of Conditionally Accepted, at least my blog posts. I already knew where the conversation was headed. This blog is trauma on display. Each post that I wrote, including some that never got published on the blog, risked becoming a rant about grad school. I have been stuck in the hurt for two years. My therapist suggested a trauma narrative – the telling of my traumatic experience, which I would work through with his help. This is much more productive than telling and retelling horror stories to anyone who will listen. And, it was. I filled a 70-page spiral notebook with the handwritten telling of every horrific experience, instance of discrimination, and microaggression. When I flipped through the 70 pages, I thought, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?”

What was so traumatic about my graduate training? I identified four factors that were beyond my control: repeated microaggressions; the devaluing of research on my communities (Black and queer people) as legitimate areas of study; the efforts to “beat the activist out” of me; and, the intense pressure to pursue a career that was not right for me. These factors reflect the structure and culture of graduate training. PhD or not, job or not, any time in that program would inevitably traumatize me. There is no use feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I could have done differently.

How do Black queer activists and other marginalized and radical students avoid such trauma? Maybe I will have an answer upon successfully recovering from my own trauma. I suspect having a community, supportive family and friends, and a strong sense of my values helped to prevent worse trauma. But, these clearly were not enough to prevent the trauma in the first place.

Ultimately, academia would have to change drastically. Diversity as a value would have to mean active recruitment and retention of significant numbers of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, working class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and religious and nonreligious minorities. That, and the valuing of research on and by these populations. And, doing away with the mythology of objectivity and its privileging of scholarship on and by white heterosexual middle-class cisgender men without disabilities. Activism, which has a long history in academia, can no longer be seen as antithetical to academic pursuits. In the 21st century, grad programs must prepare students for the realities of the profession and world. Too few PhDs land tenure-track jobs, and even fewer in reputable research I universities. We should be training the next generation of intellectuals for all possible academic and non-academic jobs, and to be able to respond to the problems of their day.

I am certain that I may continue to process the trauma out loud. But, as my therapist encouraged me, I no longer want to dwell on it. Rather, I want to continue to use this blog as a space to offer resources for current and future scholars of marginalized backgrounds. Maybe, just maybe, I will help one person avoid the traumatic experiences that I endured. At least let me dream of an academia that is safe, equitable, diverse, accessible, and active in the promotion of social justice.

On “Coming Out” As Bipolar In Academia

Seth Selfie

Seth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. In Seth’s first guest blog post, he wrote about navigating academia with bipolar disorder.  In this blog post, he reflects on the power of “coming out” as an instructor with bipolar disorder in order shatter the silence, as well as the stigma, that surrounds mental illness in academia and society in general.

Coming Out vs. coming out

Legendary queer theorist Eve Sedgwick used to write that coming out was a continuous process. She told us that whether we liked it or not, we would be coming out day after day, year after year, because there would always be someone new who did not know “the truth” about who we really were once the office door was closed. And it’s not as though Sedgwick was wrong. I would say I out myself six times a day in terms of a different part of my complex identity in an attempt to gain agency in a world that consistently desires to label me incorrectly. This is not easy or fun, but it has given me access to parts of my dignity that I otherwise would not have maintained through a considerable amount of challenges. And when I am feeling sentimental, I also remember it is Pride month (at the time I am writing this essay), and if I come out maybe someone else in the future won’t have to, or at the very least that it will not be as scary.

In my last essay, in which I discussed my silence surrounding my bipolar disorder, I alluded to the fact I am a transgender man and am out to my students. I painted a fairly positive picture of that circumstance. I told you that we talked about it in class and that the students knew both of my names and that this did not bother me. To be clear: it does not bother me that they do not view me as a cisgender male, but coming out to them on the first day of class was one of the most challenging academic exercises I have ever experienced. I stood up in front of a class of thirty students with varying levels of gender studies experience and told them my preferred name and pronouns, explaining that I was indeed the same person listed in the school’s computer systems—the one with the girl name and the same one they read about on RateMyProfessor.com. I was already shaking from my normal medication and this sudden thrust into my private life made it worse. I put my hands into my pockets and moved on to explain my syllabus and the course requirements.

After that first class, I got several emails from students congratulating me on the coming out speech and telling me that they thought it was great, that they were excited to have me as a teacher. I was not misgendered or misnamed at all that semester. Even though gender dysphoria is still considered a mental health condition, none of my students saw me as sick. They thought I was strong and a role model. The irony of this, like I discussed in my first essay, is that I actually am sick, people just do not know what “type” of sick I am. While coming out to a large group of undergraduates can turn you instantly into some twisted campus LGBTQ celebrity (which seems glamorous at first), the most important coming out experience I’ve had was much smaller and one that I do not bring up often because I view it as a precious moment of self articulation and mentoring rather than a public show. But, I believe sharing it now is important, especially in light of my last post in which I ended with the image of disabled students and faculty coexisting on campus but never directly interacting, something that should and needs to change.

“coming out” As Bipolar

Given my sadness over this academic climate and the material I teach in my courses (which deals directly with mental illness), I have disclosed my disability to exactly one student on one occasion. I believe that moment to have been one of my most scholarly, even if it was risky and gave me no public gain the way my various LGBTQ classroom coming out experiences did. I was teaching a unit on Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, in my Sexuality in America course. I talked about teens with mental illness being deserving of sexual lives and how the protagonists cultivated sexual intimacy on their own terms. (Interestingly, I was working through this topic in my own life in therapy at the time, given the mood changes from testosterone, and how they were affecting my bipolar symptoms and medications.) Over half of my class disagreed and were vocally ableist. They told me that people with mental illness were too risky to date, that certain non-heteronormative sexual acts did not count as real intimacy, and, perhaps most jarringly, that if both members of a couple had the same disability then the relationship would be doomed from the start.

I tried to stop it, but it was too late; the discussion got out of hand and I felt personally victimized by my own students even though they had no idea. The tone of the class was one of privilege and ignorance, that each student was certain what they had been reading about had no connection to anyone in the room at all, despite constant vigilance on my part to remind them that our course material was sensitive and that they may never know whether someone in our class was personally identifying in serious ways.

A few days later, one of my students emailed me and asked to make an appointment to discuss how she felt during class. We met and talked about the text, the discussion, and how she was processing the climate of the class in general. It was clear she was having a personal identification with the novel (but did not tell me exactly what). She was shaking in her chair and I knew it was because she was used to the stigma of mental illness and that the act of disclosing to a teacher is not easy. I wanted her to keep her dignity, something I missed when I having to “confess” to faculty members years ago. I made an instantaneous decision and said:

You do not know this, but I have bipolar disorder and it is very hard for me to hear my own students speak like that. This book affects me deeply, too. I feel that it is my job to advocate for anyone who might feel unsafe in class or scared. I will go out of my way to make sure this changes. I feel as if you are very brave for coming to me and telling me that our classroom is not ideal. This is exactly what shows me you have academic maturity. Tell me what you need to feel better about class.

Relief washed over her face and we went on to outline a plan on how to talk to the class about ableism and invisible disability. The following week, I implemented the plan and, while it took some time to take effect, eventually everyone in the room was more mindful (including me) about what was said and the tone used. This type of classroom management was extremely difficult, but once it was implemented I feel the class was one of the most successful I had ever taught. Coming out to my student allowed me to merge my personal and professional lives in a small, but significant way that informed my teaching throughout the semester. If I said before that bipolar is always a student in my classroom, then disclosing the bipolar made me a student in my own classroom for the first time. I learned, I taught, and on some days, I felt free. I do not know if I will ever tell another student again, but on that day I needed to tell this particular student she was not alone, or more importantly, tell myself that I was not alone in my own classroom.

Closing Thoughts

When I got my evaluations back that semester, more than a few students noted that I was “sensitive,” “accommodating,” and “fair.” I believe these comments to be directly reflective of the plan my student and I worked on to actively combat ableism. It has also led me to think that students crave this type of classroom atmosphere, but do not have the skills to ask or advocate for themselves. This is not their fault. They grow up learning test scores are more important than feelings.

My advice to my colleagues (if I’m qualified to even give it), especially those who have suffered at the hands of this life-shattering disease (or countless others), is to give your students the education we always needed but didn’t know how to name. Teach with love, compassion, and mindfulness. Give extensions, leave your office doors open just a little longer, believe your students when they tell you they are sick even if they don’t seem to have the sniffles. But, most importantly, I try to remember what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) creator Dr. Marsha Linehan once said about surviving mental illness and then devoting her life and career to helping others with also were ill. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I was in hell.  And I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”

An Important Caveat About Self-Care For Academics

Grace CaleGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology (full biography at the end). In this guest post, Grace makes an important distinction between “self-care” and “soothing” activities, where the difference is long-term versus short-term benefit, respectively, to our health and well-being. Are your usual self-care strategies just momentary distractions? Or, do they promote long-term wellness and balance?  Read on to find out!

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“Self-Care” vs. “Soothing”:

Not Necessarily So Warm And Fuzzy

Folks, it’s no secret: academia is not an easy world to inhabit. For many of us, while learning to navigate this unique place for the first time (or experiencing new difficulties), we often find that our usual mechanisms for coping with extreme stress cease to function effectively. This is the time where we give up trying to work for the day (or week), sit in an armchair cocooned in a blanket, and read articles on self-care. Self-care is important. It is a thing, which, to put it simply, allows us to keep going. Stress and work drain our little metaphorical bucket of energy, and self-care is supposed fill that bucket back up. This can be read on nearly any article on the topic. But, that is not why I am writing to you today.

Instead, today, I take issue with the content of many of these articles. For metaphorical-bucket-recovery, those who give self-care advice often recommend things like:

  • Bubble baths
  • Wine and a good book
  • Going for a walk in nature
  • Dinner with friends
  • Seeing a movie
  • Chilling at home with some Netflix

Some of these things work for some people, and that’s great. My long-time escape? Minecraft and comic-book-based movies and TV shows. But after a while of using this self-care strategy, I noticed something. These things served as a great distraction, but after several desperately-self-caring hours of such activities, I felt no more prepared to tackle the endless pile of work. As stress levels grew high enough to affect my physical health, I explored our university counseling services, where I discovered the difference between self-care and soothing.

Clearly these things won’t fit all readers. But if I have had this issue, I imagine some others may have, as well. I discovered that the activities that I enjoyed, while pleasant, served almost as a security blanket. They soothed my anxieties in those moments, but did nothing to alleviate the problem of overwork. When a therapist first told me this, I panicked. Self-care has to solve my problem? My problem is too much work! The only way to make it go away is to work, but it never ends, and I can’t work 24/7, and and and … and figurative hyperventilation ensued. Luckily, eternal work was not the solution. Instead, to make a long story short, through various programs and meetings, I learned a valuable lesson: Self-care is vital, but is not always soothing, nor must it be.

So, what does soothing actually refer to? When my therapist mentioned it, I was somehow mildly offended, as if someone had told me that I rely on a security blanket to get by as an adult. However, the metaphor is somewhat apt. Soothing behaviors, in this case, tend to be those things that, in the moment, calm your anxiety or worry. So, in my case, I was relying on distractions and entertainment to make me feel better, but these things did not actually provide any long-term healing, and did not strengthen my ability to cope with stress. It traded long-term growth in resilience for temporary soothing of discomfort.

What we are left with, then, is the imperative to find some way of taking care of ourselves, which may or may not also soothe our stresses and anxieties, which actually provides for our longer-term health, well-being, personal growth, and so on. As academics who may or may not have these skills, we need to have methods of self-care which serve us and the careers and lives for which we aspire. But these necessary means of self-care may not provide momentary relief.

Now, of course, if you find something that you enjoy and it actually refills your metaphorical energy bucket, by all means, do that. And it is certainly unwise to engage in “self-care” behaviors that are necessarily dangerous, painful, or so stressful that they are counterproductive. But I had believed that self-care must be something distinctly pleasant, enjoyable, or fun. For me, the magical solution ended up being two things I flatly disliked, and one thing I liked: yoga and mindfulness meditations, and studying a language (which happened to help my dissertation). These things may not work for everyone, but they did for me. Yoga provided low-social-pressure physical exercise (good for the bucket, and health in general), and required focus because of its difficulty (which helped keep me from expending energy thinking about work that I should be doing). For 10-20 minutes at a time, I would do guided meditations, which also helped me to divert my mind away from the energy-waste of constant work-oriented thoughts. It also turns out I loved studying a language, and the joy of learning helped remind me (in part) why I decided upon a career in research. It didn’t fix everything, but I did experience some improvement in my ability to function, and came down from the ledge of an overwhelmed breakdown.

However, as we consume the nearly countless offerings of articles on how to be kind to ourselves in our lives and careers, let us not forget that while self-care might sooth our stresses in the moment, many soothing activities do not necessarily constitute real self-care. I write this long, winding story to remind folks of two key things: if you have a self-care routine that works for you and you enjoy it, by all means, do that. But if you’re still struggling to fill your little perseverance pail, try out some of those things people say you should do, even if you don’t love them. If you can stand it, give it a thought. Exercise. It doesn’t have to be public, easy or hard. But do anything that you can actually keep up regularly. I do yoga video podcasts in my home office. Try meditation (some of the benefits are supported by research), or creative writing, or whatever you feel gives your brain a break from its constant processing.

We all signed up for this academic life. While we sometimes question those decisions, three things are for sure. It’s a ton of work, it’s exhausting, and we’ve got to keep our wells of energy full. We have to prioritize self-care in order to give our best to our communities, our departments, our students, and our allies in activism. We must, nay, we deserve to be well!

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Biography

Grace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. She can be reached at cale [dot] grace [at] uky [dot] edu.

Dear Department, I Quit.

The following post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who writes about her growing frustration with her colleagues and the culture of her department.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (http://bit.ly/1voIkjv)

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Dear Department, I Quit.

Dear Department,

I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t literally quit. You pay me a pretty decent salary. I’m not really trained to work in the real world. And for the first time in my life, I have dental benefits.

Don’t think that means, however, that I haven’t spent the majority of the past two years thinking about quitting. The fact that I don’t love my job – or even like it most days – as a professor has been one of the biggest shocks of my professional life.

In retrospect, the revolving door of junior professors who filled my position then abruptly left for the 3-4 years before I accepted it should have been a warning sign. As should have been the sheer number of new colleagues who stopped by my office in the first three months of my job to reassure me that we weren’t that dysfunctional – we were just experiencing some challenges.

I can’t actually quit. But here is my notice that I figuratively quit. I will give you the work that is required of me – the courses you assign me to teach, and the one committee on which I am required to serve – but that’s it. No more volunteering for extra committees. No more organizing events. No extra assistance for the graduate students you send my way for just a bit of extra help. No more consoling the ones who feel abused. No more listening to gossip in my office, helping to smooth hurt feelings, or nudging department politics.

Instead, you get the bare minimum. Like so many of my senior professor colleagues before me, I have decided to make my career all about me.

I quit because the burden of teaching necessary to effectively run our program falls on me and my other junior colleagues. I am sick of being part of a college where teaching is valued only as lip service, one where the reality is that everyone seems to expend more effort trying to figure out how to get out of teaching than that actually exerted in the classroom. I used to love teaching, but your hatred of it is bringing me down. It is spilling into my experience and ruining one of my favorite things. I refuse to let this happen anymore.

I quit because of the burden of service and administration that has been place on me. Or rather, I quit because of your lack of gratitude for the service that I provide when ostensibly I am protected from such service until tenure. A simple “thank you” or “good job” would go a long way, probably with colleagues of all ranks. I am sick of receiving no mentorship in how to perform these tasks, but then being criticized for doing them “incorrectly.” Last, I am sick of being told that I have no idea how good I have it as an assistant professor, and how this is the best phase of my career.

I quit because of the condescension I receive toward my rank from those above me. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it is like to be a senior professor. I would appreciate it if my senior colleagues would acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to be a junior professor in 2015. Tenure is no longer guaranteed. Grant success rates for my field are at an all time low. My interdisciplinary research (allegedly all the rage right now) is difficult to publish, but my tenure expectations are the same as my colleagues with more traditional research programs. The administrative burden for professors is higher and higher as work gets delegated to us from above (but the administration bloats at the same time). My tenure standards don’t take this into account either. I will spend one-third of my career paying off the student loan and credit card debt I incurred in graduate school. My stress over this environment is dismissed as me being silly.

I come from a generation that increasingly values a life beyond my career. This does not mean that I am less dedicated than the (mostly white men) colleagues who have historically walked these halls before me. Academia as a profession, like many others, is suffering from an epidemic of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Being shamed for looking after myself is not only inappropriate, but also disgusting.

I quit because of the everyday sexism I have to experience. Including that from senior female colleagues. I am so fatigued by this that I don’t even have the emotional or mental energy to say more.

Last, I quit because I am sick of the politics. I knew that academia was cut-throat business. I knew it valued the individual over the team. What I didn’t know is that I would be surrounded by coworkers who seem to spend a substantial proportion of their time endeavoring to screw each other over. Who create back-room deals that serve to exacerbate the gross inequities of academia. Who, then, act as though my junior colleagues and I are naïve when such deals (which usually only benefit senior colleagues) upset us.

I quit. I am tired of forcing myself to engage in a system where the only path to personal happiness and health seems to be to disengage. So I give in. I disengage. From now on, you only get the most basic things I have to give, and nothing more.

I don’t know what my long-term future entails for my career. Maybe it is time to start looking for a new job. I see so many academic blogs and Twitter accounts describing how terrible academia is…. It is nearly impossible to believe my situation could be any better somewhere else. Perhaps the one advantage to this experience is that it leads me to consider new career opportunities post-tenure. For now I’m going to focus on my own little world, and making it as positive as I can. What do I want my research to look like? What kind of instructor do I want to be? Who do I want to be, beyond a professor? Now that I’m (figuratively) quitting, I should at least have a lot more time on my hands to figure this out.

Invisibly Ill: Notes on Being Academic and Bipolar

sethSeth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  In this guest blog post, Seth reflects on navigating graduate school, the classroom, and academia in general with bipolar disorder.

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Each night before bed, I pack my school bag. I carefully place the next day’s lesson plans, papers, and books inside, propping it on a certain chair at my work table all ready to go.  The routine calms me. Two minutes later I retreat to my bedroom and take my now-reflexive drug regime of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sleep medication that will allow me to stand in front of my class and critique the very systems (big pharma and the mental health industrial complex) that have saved my own life.

However, my students and most of my colleagues will never know this about me. In fact, from childhood and up to the point where I started writing my dissertation, I racked up several suicide attempts and had willingly overdosed twice. Some of this occurred while I have been in graduate school, but I have taken great pains to keep this information quiet. I know that I am privileged to have gotten emergency treatment on those occasions, to have insurance for my medications, and to be able to go to ongoing therapy even if it is extremely expensive on my adjunct salary. But most of all, I am fortunate have an accepting partner and chosen family. I am thankful for these things everyday; without them I would not be alive.

Navigating Academia With Bipolar

I am a walking contradiction. I teach my students about celebrating difference, but I actively hide and conceal this part of my “difference.” Sometimes it is scary for me to even wear short sleeves during the summer because I worry my students will notice the self-inflicted scars on my arms while I am handing back papers. It’s not that I do not spend hours thinking about telling them. I constantly wonder if speaking about my invisible disability could serve as a transformative teaching moment. But I resist partially because I am afraid, and partially because I want privacy and to keep my dignity intact.

Interestingly, I am out to my students as transgender; they know both my preferred and birth names due to the school’s computer systems and we talk about it in class. I feel no shame about my transition, social or medical. They have seen me physically change, pried apart my body with their curious eyes, heard me talk about my boyfriend as well as various ex girlfriends.

But, I have never spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder or how this diagnosis, which came suddenly during my master’s degree, was devastating. I rarely tell people that during my initial episode: when I brought him letters documenting my disability and the accommodations I needed in order to merely survive, my Latin professor told me that my illness was just a sign I was not strong enough or smart enough for graduate school or academia in general. In that moment I learned that silence was the unspoken rule to sneaking through the maze of graduate school with mental illness. I never spoke about it again, until now.

When I defended my master’s thesis a year later, it did not feel like a celebration of my achievements or scholarly future, but more a militant statement of productivity in the face of hate and discrimination. I showed up at the door of my doctoral institution refusing to register my disability with the campus disability office, knowing that the more that I could “pass,” the better. I now believe this was wrong and the result of an academic climate that values robotic productivity and turns away from any difference, physical, mental, or other.

At my university, as with many universities in the United States, in order for a student to get accommodations or recognition for having any type of disability, they must register themselves through a disability services office that uses various criteria to determine what, if any, help to which they are “entitled.” For example, students with ADD might be given extra exam time, which the office decides on based on the students’ medical files. The problem with this model is that these offices run via a complex mixture of gatekeeping and fear. And with mental illness, something so personalized and dynamic, the situation is infinitely more complicated. Students needing accommodations due to mental illness first have to find doctors or therapists willing to meet them and then ultimately write on their behalf, all in a potentially new city and while on their own for the first time, sometimes without parental support or even understanding. Plus, this requires time, knowledge of insurance companies, and money. Yes, there may be a free counseling center on campus, but appointments can be booked months in advance (as with my university), so students often suffer in shame and silence.

Given these barriers, faculty are faced with the difficult task of deciding whether to give accommodations to “undocumented” student. Often, these students will explain to their professors that they are coping with a challenging situation, but found the disability services office too scary to navigate, or that counseling services was full and they did not have a car or funds to get to an off campus therapist. For example, I’ve had students tell me they were mourning the loss of a parent and that they needed extra time for assignments because they were depressed and at times could not handle their homework. Some of my colleagues choose not to give any accommodations to these students unless the depression is a registered “reality,” because they say students lie. But, I always treat these afflictions as tangible and serious. To give up privacy in this way usually means something is truly happening. Even if the university processes students and their individual affective problems as broken worker bees who ruin the hive, I refuse. I always think about my Latin teacher and how he processed me.

Bipolar Disorder As A Disability In Academia

As someone with bipolar disorder who is heavily medicated, I consider myself to have a disability. I know this is not the case for every non-neurotypical person, but it has helped me mourn the loss of a certain type academic life I know that I will never have due to the limitations of both bipolar and its accompanying treatments. I am currently writing my dissertation, but it is taking me longer than other students. I go to conferences, but maybe only one major association a year and one smaller one. Every step I take, paper I grade, or time I set up a student appointment is influenced by bipolar. For example, I have had to cancel class numerous times when my medications were adjusted because I could not mentally focus on my course material; I cannot schedule exams too early in the morning because sometimes I am shaky or too tired to leave the house; I flinch and become jarred when my students scream out during class because loud sounds scare me. And sometimes, even my huge arsenal of medications and various treatment team fails me. But, that’s the nature of this illness: I get manic or depressed, which leaves me hoping I will not have to go to the hospital. Bipolar is always a student in my classroom every semester; I always wonder how much he will join the discussion.

In an academic climate that favors unparalleled perfection and rewards those who reject affect-based learning, it would make sense why I have remained mute to my students (and lots of faculty) despite teaching classes on disabled sexuality and writing a dissertation focused on psychiatry, sexuality, and affect. I fear that I will be exposed as unproductive, incompetent, or weak. From Day One of graduate school, they told me the best scholars wrote the most books. With a life-altering illness, it is hard to think of myself as ever having that ability to compete on that level even though I technically haven’t even centered the arena because I am still in graduate school. Bipolar has taken so much time from me and I mourn it everyday I see yet another colleague publish an article or win a fellowship. I simply cannot do all of the herculean academic tasks demanded by the current state of affairs. I can do some and try to modify, like when I went to an Ivy League summer school and snuck away from several of the large evening lectures to rest in my dorm room and call home for some grounding. Humanities jobs are scarce (like we all know) and I am already at a disadvantage because of my health. I know that I need to adjust my idea of success and what it means. I am learning that this adjustment does not equate me with failure, just difference.

Mostly at this point, at a time that I feel stable, I worry for my students who are learning that silence is the only way to get through college, that is it is better to fail a course than to tell a teacher about one’s anxiety or depression because the stigma of mental illness is worse than the stigma of perceived laziness. To those students I say: I may never see you and you may never see me, but we are not alone.

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.

College

My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.