Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

Addressing Racist Microaggressions In Academia

macy-wilsonNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Macy Wilson identifies as a biracial (Black and Chicana), queer, cisgender woman and clinical psychology graduate student. Professionally, she is most passionate about working with men and male youth, womanist and feminist issues, and cultural sensitivity/integration. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, game nights, reading, painting and blogging (one of which can be found here).

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For most of my younger years, I was known as a kid who did well in school and liked to read. Despite living in a rural and homogenous area, I was never “othered” at school because of my racial and ethnic identities. I took women’s studies courses in college, wherein I began to learn the importance of various social identities and the intentional work that is needed to create and maintain inclusive spaces for everyone. I chose my graduate school because of its commitment to diversity, but I naïvely assumed that it would be a focal point of the majority of my classroom and applied clinical experiences.

As a cisgender woman who belongs to the LGBTQ community and identifies as Black and Chicana, affirming diverse identities is important to me. I remember how, during my first year of graduate school, every student was required to take two diversity courses. During that time, I learned about Pamela Hays’s ADDRESSING model, which provides a framework for acknowledging and assessing clients holistically. Yet, in the subsequent courses I took, diversity was only vaguely referenced, with the exception of fellow students making a point to interject a distinct perspective.

I found that discouraging but was fortunate in having a practicum supervisor who intentionally integrated cultural aspects into our discussions about my clients. I also tried my best to surround myself with like-minded colleagues who appreciated the importance of diversity in all its forms.

My first encounter with explicit racism in a professional setting was at my second practicum site. The first unit to which I was assigned closed, forcing me to choose another unit to complete the remainder of my practicum experience. The deciding factor in choosing the second unit was that a close friend and colleague who conceptualized clients similarly to me also worked there. She seemed to enjoy her work with the clients, but she had occasionally shared her grievances about the unit supervisor (a white male) to me. I went to the unit with all of my academic and clinical knowledge, ready to create positive working relationships with my new team. However, it seemed that not everyone shared this perspective of openness and collegiality, particularly the unit supervisor.

Upon my arrival, and over the course of a month and a half, the unit supervisor never spoke to me. Initially, I excused his behavior as a consequence of him being busy, just not seeing me, or maybe that I failed to greet him loudly enough to hear and see me. But I was also beginning to feel resentful because I was consistently being ignored.

One day, my friend and colleague (a Black woman) and I were sitting in a room with two white women while our clients were in groups. The supervisor stopped by and greeted the white women before returning to his office, as if my colleague and I were not even present. I later realized that I was not on the supervisor’s list for team emails, and I was missing important updates on my clients. I sent an email to request to be added to the list, our first correspondence ever, occurring nearly two months after me joining the unit.

So, I decided to test things: I made up my mind that I would see the supervisor in passing and greet him loudly so there was no doubt he could hear me. I did this, and called him by name with a smile as I passed. He still ignored me. As he continued to walk, he spoke to a white woman who was walking in the same direction as me. At that point, I realized his behavior was not simply a figment of my imagination. Rather, it had to be racism.

I pride myself on my assertiveness in school and the workplace, and I took comfort in the transparency of the supervisory relationship with my clinical supervisor. During one of our sessions, I decided to confide in him about the way that things had transpired between the unit supervisor and me. I shared the aforementioned examples. As I spoke, my supervisor seemed uncomfortable. So, I proceeded cautiously with my next statement: “I’m not calling him racist, but the way I have been treated feels like racism.” My supervisor responded hesitantly and noted that he had heard another person mention the “microaggressions” from other staff on the unit. As he continued to skirt around the issue, I felt frustrated with sharing my experience because he invalidated it by using a term to, essentially, soften the blow — and he did not offer a course for resolution; instead, I offered my own.

When therapy is concerned, I always say, “It is not the responsibility of the client to educate the therapist.” I feel similarly when issues concerning various -isms are involved: it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. Yet that often ends up being the case.

Even in professional and academic spheres, the narratives of the oppressed are frequently excluded and replaced with generic (read: privileged) accounts, placing the onus on marginalized people to inform the privileged about their experiences. Similarly, when the narratives of the oppressed are included, there are many instances wherein the true struggle of oppression is glossed over in efforts to protect the feelings of those who may not empathize with the oppressed group. In a place where I assumed that my concerns would be validated and that my supervisor would advocate for and with me, I was disappointed by his passivity and efforts to sugarcoat what was obviously racism. I had colleagues who validated my experience and shared their own, but it is extremely difficult to change things for the better without those in positions of power on your side.

As I reflect on the courses I was taking during that time, none of them seemed especially appropriate for me to share these experiences of racist behavior. Many colleges and universities pride themselves on their commitment to diversity, yet that commitment often seems to be superficial. When course work focuses on specific examples that regularly showcase white, heterosexual, able-bodied individuals, the narratives of people of color, people who are disabled, LGBTQ people and so many more are dismissed and “othered” in the process.

I firmly believe that it is necessary for classes and academic spheres to provide intentional spaces for reflections on various systems of oppression, whether that be through case material, personal anecdotes from students or readings that consistently address multicultural issues. It is not enough to have two obligatory courses devoted to diversity while using a blanket approach for other courses.

As students and professors in higher education, we are called to do the work of inclusivity, particularly in academic settings so that it is more easily integrated within our respective spaces in the community. That is not to dismiss the difficult nature of intentional inclusivity, though, as it is hard work. We can only achieve goals of inclusiveness and anti-racism by continually challenging ourselves to learn more, by consistently applying and sharing our new knowledge, and through inviting others to share their personal experiences in safe and validating spaces.

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.

A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide To Success In Academia

Grace Cale photoGrace 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. In the second part of this two-part essay (see Part I), Grace offers specific tips to working- and poverty-class for self-care and success in academia.

A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide to Getting It Done … Whatever “It” Is

In my previous article, I shared a little bit about the experience of poverty, and how that background can produce unique challenges in one’s graduate school experience. In this second part, I would like to take some time to translate these experiences as I follow my own call to action: to begin a process of resource sharing among poverty- and working-class academics.

One thing that has surprised me is that, while I often feel fairly capable, I have occasionally had the difficulty of not realizing when I needed help, or even realized when or where I could seek help. I was so used to having to do everything myself that I never knew help existed for some problems. Because these experiences are not limited to my own story, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned will be useful to other early grad students, from variously marginalized background, but especially those from working- or poverty-class backgrounds.

As many of us know, the graduate educational process involves a intense socialization into the academic culture. For scholars from underprivileged backgrounds (especially those of us whose parents never attended or graduated from college), this is a powerful, sometimes overwhelming change. It truly epitomizes the concept of academia being its own world!

One lesson that I was amazed to discover was that my working-class peers and I sometimes experienced some of the same types of microaggressions, barriers, and frustrations as people marginalized on other dimensions – a discovery which, while fantastic for building inter-group solidarity, is always difficult. Some class-based marginalizations were institutionally-oriented, and thus sometimes more financially problematic. For example, the nearly mandatory need for a summer scholarship, which might require substantial research output, but pays less than 25% of one’s basic living expenses. I must say that I love my department, which, I imagine, is more understanding and accepting than many. Deciding to stay at my present university was actually a great decision in many ways. But, studying marginalization and oppression does not necessarily mean that people regularly and effectively check their own privileges or hidden biases.

If these stories are familiar to you, you are so not alone. I nearly failed out of my first year in graduate school, not because the classes or readings were too difficult, but because I did not have the skills to juggle other social, departmental, and research demands of graduate life and culture. Instead, I attempted to over-prepare for graduate school by reading the plethora of preparatory articles, and was painfully aware of concepts like “publish or perish,” “network, network, network,” or the implied mandate that, to be hired, one must be seen, must attend major conferences, and must present, present, present. So, I had on my plate a huge, unsustainable list of things that “must” be done, and no idea how people did it all. I assumed that you “buck up” and knuckle down, no matter how many times you break down.

Tips For Surviving And Thriving In Academia

This is the context from which we come, and the situation that I suspect is familiar to some readers. So, here are my recommendations to the ambitious, the driven, and those lacking the many types of capital demanded of the predominantly middle-class world of academia. I cannot promise that any or all of these these tips will work for you, but they got me through my Master’s degree and my pre-qualifying exam semester.

  • You will be told that you MUST do it all, or you will fail. Don’t. You won’t, you can’t, and trying could literally kill you.
  • Instead, explore related articles and resources on Conditionally Accepted and similar blogs, and find a mentor. Ideally, find a few mentors. Realistically, it is unlikely that one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs as a graduate student. And that is okay. But latch onto those who fill some of your checkboxes, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of their expertise. It’s literally their job. This is a service the more privileged colleagues have learned to take advantage of and thus benefit from without giving it a second thought. You are just as worthy to do so, and it can be invaluable to your career and well-being.
  • At times, I did not realize that I needed help when I did, or that I had taken on too full of a load of projects. It may be good to periodically inform your advisor or mentor when or before you take on a new project, especially if you’re still taking classes or working as a teaching, graduate, or research assistant. If you are new to this world, you may not realize the load a seemingly simple project or co-authored paper will add to your term. Use your mentor’s experience to help assess the work involved with those opportunities before you pursue them.
  • Explore the various academic advice blogs about topics such as productivity and time management as needed, but avoid becoming oversaturated with allegedly vital tips for success. I often explored sites such as Conditionally Accepted, Presumed Incompetent’s Facebook page, The Professor Is In, and other blogs for marginalized scholars, but social class is not consistently considered in these resources. Find a couple of things that work for you and stick to them. You don’t need to fit into someone else’s mold for how to become a fully functional academic. Indeed, much advice may come from a different privileged status, or else be meant for an audience facing a different axis of oppression. But you do need to find your own method, and that sometimes may mean adapting or reinterpreting advice to help your unique situation. Experiment, keep doing what is successful, and be kind to yourself when you fail. Know that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Try to twist your habits (good or bad) into something that serves your needs. Try to find other scholars from similar backgrounds, or perhaps try to find or form a community where scholars can share their struggles, trials, and tribulations.
  • Find a few methods of self-care that work, and stick to them. Eat nutritious food (if you can secure the funding to afford it), try to get at least 6 hours of sleep nightly (7-9 hours ideally), engage in some form of physical activity, and find a way to give yourself even ten minutes without thinking of work. I have always hated yoga and mindfulness meditation, but those things worked for me, and helped me recover from some effects of burnout.
  • It may be counter to the way you were taught to behave, but be aggressive in finding ways to take care of your financial and personal needs. One can be tactful, but nobody can advocate for you unless you advocate for yourself to even a small extent. People often do their best, but they cannot know your needs unless you tell them. This is especially true in the heavily middle- and upper-middle class world of academia, where even those who try to be helpful may have no idea what your needs are. They may not realize that they have a resource that you need. Further, it will quickly become very easy to ignore your personal needs or shove them aside in favor of your seemingly more vital academic goals. Don’t. This brings me to the final point….
  • No academic goal is more important than your ability to be a functioning human being. Graduate school culture is a place that is perfectly situated to encourage overworking, and we normalize the huge mental, physical, and emotional health sacrifices made to achieve our academic goals. But attending conferences or publishing are pointless, and may be impossible, if you’re so overworked and stressed that you can barely function. Take care of yourself first, and the quality of your work will benefit. Even if self-care feels like a waste of time that could be spent working, you must do it to survive in the long-run.

Never forget: The struggle is real, and so are your experiences. Try to find allies; love them, and love yourself. You and I will get through this.

Please, Stop Assuming I Am A Graduate Student!

angie millerDr. Angie L. Miller is an Assistant Research Scientist for the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, where she studies creativity, student engagement, and arts training in higher education.  In this guest post, Dr. Miller reflects on her experiences of being mistaken for a graduate student at academic conferences, and the social, intellectual, and gendered power undertones of these interactions.   

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I would like to be able to attend just ONE conference and not be mistaken for a graduate student. I completed my Ph.D. 6 years ago. At first when people did this, I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I realize that I do look young. I went right from undergrad to my master’s program, and then right into my doctoral program. I took more than full course loads every semester, and was able to finish before I turned 27. Coupled with the blessing (and curse?) of having no grey hair and also skin that break outs like a teenager’s, many people assume that I am much younger than 32. Although this is not just limited to professional situations (given the countless times I have been carded in bars and restaurants), it is usually where it is the most disconcerting. I’ve been addressed in meetings as a “girl” and been questioned about my dissertation progress during interactions with grant funders.

Because I am fortunate enough to have a research faculty appointment in a well-funded research center at a large university, I present at more conferences than most faculty with more traditional teaching positions. Usually averaging between 4 and 6 per year, I have had ample opportunity to do the “networking” dance of academic conferences. It never fails that at some point during the conference, someone I don’t know will assume that I am a graduate student. People will ask “So what doc program are you in?” or “Who is your advisor?” or “Have you finished your coursework yet?” or “What is the topic of your dissertation?” And then I am faced with the task of correcting them, which in such a forced and awkward social situation usually ends up being an apology on my part for looking so young.

At a recent conference during one of the various university-sponsored receptions, while standing in line for the cash bar a man (who couldn’t have been more than 15 years older than I am) politely said hello, looked at the name and institution on my badge, and said “So you’re a grad student at IU? What program?” From there I began my standard “Actually, I have a faculty position…” explanation. Having the first thing I say to someone come out as a correction, pointing out that he/she is wrong about something, is never ideal.

I have tried several different things, little social experiments with an n of 1, to see whether there is some specific aspect of my appearance that is sending off a “grad student” vibe. I’ve tried wearing my long hair up or pulled back. I’ve tried wearing minimal makeup, and I’ve tried wearing more deliberate eye and lip colors. Skirts and dresses and pants, heels and flats – all at varying levels of “dressiness.” Nothing that I can control seems to make a difference. Perhaps I need to start dyeing my hair grey or drawing wrinkles and age spots onto my face.

When I complain about this, that I find it condescending (or at the very least annoying simply because it happens with such frequency), some people tell me that I should take it as a compliment. I should be elated that I still look young, and that I can pass for a woman in her mid-20s. But the rationale behind telling me to take it as a compliment suggests that as a female, I should value a youthful appearance over everything else, including any of my intellectual accomplishments. I take major issue with that. I worked very hard to complete my degrees and garner all of my publications and presentations since, whereas I did absolutely nothing outside of regular sunscreen use to achieve a young physical appearance. Call me crazy, but I take more pride in the things for which I have actually had to work. So, no, mistaking me for a graduate student is NOT actually a compliment.

Getting To The Root Of It

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought recently, as it continues to regularly occur even as I begin the process of going up for promotion. I sometimes wonder if I am bothered so much by this because I come from a place of privilege in so many other aspects of my life and don’t really have a strategy for dealing with this sort of thing. And this, in turn, makes me feel kind of bratty and obnoxious for caring about it so much in the first place. As a white middle-class heterosexual cisgender woman with well-educated parents, there are a lot of privileges to which I have access, and from which I have certainly benefitted over the course of my life. I am fully aware that if I were a person of color, or in a male-dominated STEM field rather than education, I would probably face many more challenges in my career. But I still think that gender does, at least in part, play a role. In comparing notes with my other coworkers who are approximately the same age, it happens rarely, if at all, to my male colleagues. Conversely, it is a much more frequent occurrence for my female colleagues, one of whom I often travel and present with, thus having witnessed it firsthand. There never seems to be a good way to respond. Is not addressing the microaggression equivalent to tacit acceptance of it?

The assumption that age is equivalent to experience and seniority (also conditional on gender) is not limited to academia. However, considering the varied career trajectories of many who end up with advanced degrees and continue to work in higher education, it makes even less sense. Many people (of any gender) begin work on their Ph.Ds. in their 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s, so simply being older should not necessarily mean that a person is more established. Perhaps the exemplar of the middle-aged woman “going back” for a graduate degree after she has gotten married and had children plays a role in the development of these assumptions of age, gender, and expertise as well.

But regardless of its origins, the bottom line is when you make the assumption that I’m a graduate student, you undermine my intellectual authority. When I actually WAS a graduate student, I never experienced any sort of imposter syndrome. I knew that I was smart and capable and motivated to succeed, and I never questioned whether I deserved my place in the program. It wasn’t until after I finished my Ph.D. that I began to feel diminished and out of place in academia. When you assume that I am a graduate student, especially if you are a white middle-aged man, you implicitly send the message that you are superior to me in accomplishments and intellect, that you are the more valuable asset to the field. In one single sentence of one single interaction, you take away everything I have worked so hard to accomplish. Not just my Ph.D., but also the 14 peer-reviewed publications and nearly 70 conference presentations, workshops, and webinars I have completed since finishing my doctoral degree.

So please, stop.

Excellence As A Survival Strategy For Black Women In Academia

DelleaDellea K. Copeland (@delleacopeland) is a first-year graduate student in Political Science at Penn State University.  In this guest post, Dellea writes about unsuccessful attempts to downplay her Blackness in order to appease her white colleagues — energy that she has recently realized is best spent on the best revenge yet: professional excellence.  As a Black queer womyn, she has learned early in her graduate training that she must prioritize her survival in academia in order to succeed and thrive.

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Excellence

I am a 22-year-old queer womyn of color, first generation college graduate, first generation American. I wear my afro like it’s 1969. I speak openly about patriarchy and racism. On my desk, you will find an American flag that says “Black Lives Matter”, inspirational book of quotes by Black womyn, and even a copy of Essence magazine. My desk is the first thing you see when you walk into the office. Make no mistake – a Black womyn lives here.

These things have nothing to do with my research and everything to do with my survival. As a first year graduate student, I am still trying on survival mechanisms. From closing the office door and crying with my colleagues to unapologetically tweeting my frustrations, I am figuring out what works for me.

I did not come into graduate school this way. I was timid, wary of expressing myself, and constantly oscillating between “souling out”, as Eric penned. I tied up my natural hair, bottled up my “militant” (otherwise known as passionate, pained, emotional, or revolutionary – depending on your color) speeches when Mike Brown was murdered, and aimed to please my new peers. There was a person in my department whom I was glad to know, having moved all the way up north from the same area of the country. I soon learned he was from the more rural, conservative (read: racist) area of our state, as his remarks became more markedly classist and sexist.

I guess it was the confederate flag tattoo that really put me over the edge. I gave up trying to please and began a crusade against this person and all others who think like him. Every infraction was reported to administration; otherwise I personally opened a can of whoop ass.

But this is tiring. I didn’t come here for this.

I will never tell someone not to stand up for him or herself, but I will stress the importance of prioritizing. Are we here to fix stupid or are we here to be scholars? (“Are we gladiators? Or are we bitches?”) In other words, do their comments and opinions prevent us from achieving the bigger picture? My white friend and colleague is in the process of her personal crusade and has reached the moment where it’s become consuming. I periodically remind her of an ancient Negro proverb:

“Don’t let white boys who wear flip flops tell you shit.”

This is not always easy. I recently had a particularly difficult week with my colleagues speaking over me, calling me “lazy,” and giving me all the eye contact when talking about minority issues. (I am not the only racial minority, but I am the darkest in the room.) These behaviors are especially frustrating because we have been over this. We have had workshops and meetings until the end of time, yet there are days when I can’t get out of bed and face these people. These people who make me feel different and unimportant. These people who probably wear flip flops! As I write this, I am in the beginning of a three day “positivity weekend.” A much needed retreat from the smog of bitterness that has clouded my judgment. My email is off; I am not taking calls; I am not reading the news. I will not discuss white supremacy, graduate school, or engage with people from the office. I will watch Scandal, read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, listen to “Black” podcasts – basically be in my safe space so that I may recuperate and re-examine my purpose here. For the next three days, I belong to me.

As a Black womyn at a predominantly-white institution (PWI) (and a small town), it is not simply the lack of color that makes me feel isolated. It is the lack of understanding. When I can’t breathe, I run to my advisor and department friends who are wonderful allies because they listen and sympathize. I try to Skype with friends who are simultaneously going through this experience. I read blogs and connect with similar people on Twitter. I religiously listen to podcasts, not for the amusement, but to hear my own tongue. I don’t have friends here whom I can relax around and speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English). For some, it may be helpful to join the Black student groups on campus, but I found this insufficient. Again, it’s not about color. It’s about having a mutual understanding and enjoying cultural bonds. Simply put, Blackness is not necessarily an indication of one’s politics or cultural associations.

When my friend asked me to help her move on from her emotionally exhausting crusade, this is what I said:

I realized my issue with my officemate wasn’t with him specifically, it was everything he represented. People like him are a direct threat to my physical existence. While he can be “taught” to do better, it’s taken students and faculty to get him to be where he is today. Which means, your enemy will learn eventually, or he won’t, but it’s not up to you to teach him. Your job is to do your best and be great regardless. His actions sting, but who cares? Someone said my officemate is actually intimidated by me. Good. This didn’t happen because I am Black, proud, and will smack him down like the hand of God. It happened because I am his academic competition. How dare I be excellent when I am poor, Black, and female? Your enemy isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that he is not the last one you will have to deal with. Don’t spend another calorie teaching him, you don’t need him to be a better person for you to do your job. Be excellent because that’s apparently the worst offense.

I wish someone had said this to me, so I am saying it to you. Those who feel the need to marginalize you are intimidated. Do not wilt to assuage their insecurity. Do not waste your divine energy on those who do not deserve it. One day, they will learn. Until then, pay attention to your survival, perfect your craft, and your work will speak for itself.

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Biography

Dellea K. Copeland is a first-year graduate student at Penn State University. She studies authoritarian regimes, democratic breakdowns, protest movements, and the Middle East. Fingers crossed, she will graduate in 2019 with a PhD in political science. As an undergraduate, Dellea was a part of the McNair Scholars Program, a federal program dedicated to diversifying higher education. She has published in two undergraduate journals and presented her work across the country at multiple undergraduate and professional conferences. She hails from Austin, Texas and will be your research assistant in exchange for street tacos.

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.