Graduate School, I Forgive You

Graduation, May 2013

Graduation, May 2013

Over the summer, I received a notification that my online university accounts at my graduate institution were terminated.  It had been a year since I officially graduated and began working at another school.  I knew that this moment would come eventually, but I was surprised that I felt the slightest bit of sadness about it.  This was it.  That chapter of my life was officially over, and my ties to the institution no longer existed (excluding friendships and professional relationships, of course).

I could not wait to get out of graduate school, but I have continued to struggle to recover from it over the past year and a half.  I had hoped that I would write a few posts to work through what I called “graduate school garbage,” and make available the experiences and resources that were not available to me as I attempted to forge my own career path.  Shortly after, I would shift to providing advice for graduate students and fellow junior scholars.  But, that has not happened yet.  Over a year after I made the public declaration to pursue tenure my way, I continue to struggle with fear, self-doubt, and the emotional baggage of graduate school.

Time To Move On

Although the elimination of my online accounts made the chapter’s end officially official, I already suspected that I was overdue for beginning to move on with my life.  On occasion, I have successfully churned out an essay of advice.  But, I sometimes have to write out the awful experiences that led to suggestions for better ways of doing things; I simply delete that part of the narrative, or use it sparingly to contextualize my advice.  During my last attempt to write a post on advice, I had a page-long rant about graduate school with no advice, which I ultimately deleted.

It seems as though I am not yet at the point where my writing on and conversations about graduate school are exclusively or at least mostly advice-giving.  And, I worry that I am developing a reputation for simply complaining or “trashing” my graduate program (see the comments section of this post).  Even outside of blogging, I find myself blaming the challenges of grad school for ongoing anxiety, self-doubt, awkwardness in interactions with students and colleagues, and uncertainty about navigating academic spaces.  I fear I have become a wounded, broken record.  “Okay, we get it,” I imagine people saying, “graduate school sucked.  Move on already!”

I feel stuck.  Why am I still working through the trauma of grad school?  Am I forever changed, or will the disappointment and resentment dissipate over time?

Forgiveness

Moving on will not be enough.  Or, as we mean “move on” in a casual sense — just stop thinking about the past and focus on the present — will not be effective, at least not as quickly as I would like.  It recently dawned on me that the key to successfully moving on is probably to make peace with the previous chapter of my life.  That is, it is time to forgive everything and everyone related to my graduate training.

What would it mean to forgive graduate school?  I realize that it sounds odd, that I am implying that I have been wronged in some way and have decided to forgive.  I was not intentionally harmed or deceived or excluded by someone or something (well, rarely, if ever).  But, I suspect thinking only of intentional wrong-doing as acts that are forgivable is what makes this seem odd.

I see offering forgiveness, in part, as finding good or positive intentions within a limited, complex, or even oppressive context.  I can use my parents’ journey to accepting me as their unapologetically queer son as an example.  If I refused to understand their initial disappointment and fear from any perspective other than my own, I likely would have stood my ground in cutting ties with them at age 19.  They wanted to protect me from homophobia and the consequences it has in queer people’s lives; but, they failed to see how their own intolerance contributed to those hardships in my life.  After some time, I realized how hard I was on them, demanding immediate and total acceptance (or else kicking them out of my life).  I ignored that they had been raised in a homophobic society, and did not have the knowledge and skills (and confidence) to support a queer child.

Graduate programs have a set of norms, values, and practices that, unfortunately, often do not reflect my own values, needs, and interests.  I came to graduate school as an activist, and wanted to leave graduate school as an even better activist.  Whether I agree with the sentiment that academic careers are not designed for scholars with activist leanings (I surely do not agree!), the heart of graduate training is research with a sprinkle of teaching (if you are lucky).  When put in those terms, it does not make sense to resent grad school for failing to train me as an activist; that is like damning an eye doctor for failing to address my anxiety.  But, to my credit, it was not made explicit until midway through my training that academia and activism do not mix (in some people’s minds).

There were mentors who did support me as an activist, though to the best of their abilities as academics and within the bounds of what graduate training is really about.  This recognition seems crucial to beginning the process of forgiving.  My mentors did the best that they could, and their intentions were to mold me into a strong scholar so that I would have as many professional opportunities as possible.  Since formal training for graduate education is uncommon (does it even exist?), it seems many professors simply mentor in ways that worked for them, or in ways they wish they were mentored as students.  In many ways, it seems like parenting; there are a plethora of books, but no real, universal guide to being a good mentor.  They make it up as they go.  And, as with my parents, my advisors probably struggled with knowing how to mentor a student like me.

Why Forgiveness Matters

I should be clear that, in forgiving graduate school, I am not excusing negative or hurtful things that happened to me.  I see many problems with graduate education that warrant improvement.  And, it seems silly to challenge myself to forget the foundational training of my academic career.  At this early stage — in which I acknowledge I am a novice at this notion of forgiveness — I see this journey primarily as understanding my graduate training from a broader perspective, and choosing to focus on and appreciate the positive aspects of that chapter of my life.

First and foremost, the need to forgive everything and everyone is urgent because I need to move on.  It does me no good to carry baggage from the previous chapter of my life.  I am getting in the way of fully appreciating the current chapter.  For example, as I continue to replay conversations about the kinds of jobs I should (and should not) apply to, I unintentionally force myself to second guess my decision to work at a liberal arts university.  Am I really happy here?   Well, yes, I am!  I am tired of frequently doing the math in my head to remind myself that I fought for this job, a job that is great for me in so many ways, and that I see no reasons to seriously consider leaving.  In other words, it seems as long as I ruminate over the past, I cannot fully appreciate the present.

Second, I tend to ignore the positive aspects of my graduate training by obsessing over the negatives.  I received training at one of the top sociology programs in the nation, which opened many doors for my career.  I became, in my humble opinion, a strong scholar and teacher.  In some ways, I was even supported in developing my own type of academic career.  Overall, I do not regret attending the program, or pursuing a PhD in general.  I made friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime.  As long as I cling to resentment, I hesitate to connect with my mentors, which I now realize is a foolish mistake because they can (and probably will) remain mentors for life.  I actually limit the good that came from my graduate training by maintaining my resentment-filled distance.

Finally, I need to relinquish the victim status I have unconsciously developed.  I tend to think of what I endured and the compromises I made in order to get my PhD; I tend to lose sight of what I gained.  It is too easy to focus on the ways in which I am wounded — fearful, uncertain, lacking confidence — rather than feeling empowered.  In a way, the path to forgiveness will probably entail forgiving myself.  What I endured was not so much loss or compromise as it was an investment for developing the kind of career I want.  I did the best that I could; and, even with a few bumps and bruises, I actually did pretty damn well.  Even just in writing this paragraph, I suddenly feel a sense of pride that is probably stuffed under the resentment, disappointment, and doubt.

Concluding Thoughts

Where this path goes is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you.  I will not be surprised by bumps and setbacks, tapping into pockets of my spirit that I did not know were still bound by anger and hurt.  I hope, once successful, that I can comfortably focus on the present and reflect on the past only to provide useful advice to others.  I will even challenge myself, starting now, to write about the previous chapter of my life only if to offer advice, or privately if it will help work toward forgiveness.

Academia is toxic enough.  I plan to become a voice of hope and kindness.

Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

Me - Presentation 1

Around the time of my birth, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins began writing, and ultimately publishing, an essay on being an “outsider within” sociology.  In her 1986 piece, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Collins writes about the difficulties Black women scholars — specifically sociologists — face in reconciling their personal experiences, identities, values, and perspectives with those that dominate academia.  In particular, “to become sociological insiders, Black women must assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” (p. 49).  Almost 30 years later, I struggle with similar challenges at the beginning of my academic career.

In graduate school, I learned several harsh lessons about what was entailed in being a good scholar:

  • Academia and activism do not mix.  And, one of the primary aims of academic professional socialization is to “beat the activist” out of you.
  • Good researchers do not simply study oppressed populations.  Rather, one adopts a valued, mainstream framework (e.g., social psychology, medical sociology), and just happens to focus on a particular community or population.  Studying race, or gender, or sexuality, or *gasp* the intersections among them are deemed “narrow” research interests.
  • Qualitative methods, particularly approaches that give voice to and empower oppressed communities, are devalued relative to quantitative approaches.
  • Good research is objective.  One should not even write in the first person in articles and books!

I bucked at the pressure to “go R1.”  I publicly declared I would not put another day of my life on hold just to attain or keep an academic position.  And, I have dared to talk openly about inequality within academia.  You would think that I would be passed all of this, no longer carrying around bitterness or resentment about what my graduate training was or wasn’t.  It seems my journey as an outsider within has just begun.  Collins argues:

Outsider within status is bound to generate tension, for people who become outsiders within are forever changed by their new status. Learning the subject matter of sociology stimulates a reexamination of one’s own personal and cultural experiences; and, yet, these same experiences paradoxically help to illuminate sociology’s anomalies. Outsiders within occupy a special place – they become different people, and their difference sensitizes them to patterns that may be more difficult for established sociological insiders to see (p. 53).

I welcome what my unique perspective stands to offer sociology and academia in general.  Even at this early stage, I feel my research has covered issues that seem so obvious to me but, to date, has not been examined in prior research.  However, the downsides of the tension that Collins mentions — the frustration, self-doubt, alienation — continue to take a toll on my personal and professional life.  Can this tension ever be reconciled?  Collins suggests:

Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bona fide, ‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline” (p. 53).

Wow, damned if you do…  This is why Collins advocates for greater acknowledgement, recognition, and use of the black feminist perspective in sociology.  She argues that outsider within perspectives should be encouraged and institutionalized.  In general, scholars, especially outsiders within, should “trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 53).  Without this change, scholars continue to rely on research and theory that largely excludes, or even distorts, the experiences and values of oppressed people.

I suppose some progress has been made since Collins wrote this article.  Indeed, more and more sociologist recognize black feminist theory as an important perspective.  But, many marginalized scholars, like myself, continue to feel conditionally accepted in the profession.  Our success and relevance, even our livelihood, seems to depend on the extent to which we assimilate to white, masculinist, cis- and heterosexist, and middle-class ways of thinking (and being).

More Than R1, One Year Later

Lake at University of Richmond

University of Richmond lake.

Last year, I wrote blog posts recounting my experiences on the academic job market and the ultimate decision to accept my current position. The job search was tough, as it is for any job candidate. But, I had the added stress of being pressured to pursue jobs at research-intensive universities or, more colloquially, to “go R1.” Now, one year later, I am content with my decision, and am optimistic that I will love my job once the adjustment period has ended. But, it has not been a “happily ever after” fairytale (yet).

The Job Search

As a rising high school senior, I had my heart set on attending a small liberal arts college (SLAC) within my home state. On a tour of one campus, my mother teased me about wanting to be a “big fish in a little pond.” But, as she saw the small scholarships that these expensive schools offered, she began encouraging me to look at state schools. I resisted initially, but fell in love with UMBC and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which offered a full scholarship. I decided to attend UMBC, becoming a medium-size fish in a medium-size pond (or, so it seemed from my perspective). I tucked away my liberal arts dreams for future chapter of my life.

As an eager, yet naïve first-year graduate student, I announced my plan to become a professor at a liberal arts college to an advisor. I was encouraged to “aim for R1” instead because that career path would be the hardest to obtain; if I changed my mind, other paths would be easily pursued. After a couple of years in grad school, I learned such a strategy was not enough; one also had to keep liberal arts dreams secret, for some advisors might invest less time and energy into your training. The more I opened myself up to research-intensive training, the more I felt favored by the faculty, and the more doors opened to me in the department and beyond. At times, I was convinced an R1 job was best for me, even if it meant being miserable, unhealthy, overworked, and devoting my energy on research at the expense of teaching and advocacy.

When I successfully pushed to go on the job market, I was asked, “you’re not applying to liberal arts jobs, right?” The possibility seemed quickly and offhandedly dismissed. By that point in my training, I had become so successful at conforming that I meekly responded, “right.” But, when I secretly applied to a liberal arts job, which erroneously automatically sent requests to my advisors for recommendation letters, my interest in liberal arts schools was outed (again). I was hesitantly allowed to apply to liberal arts schools, then to interview with them.

By November 2012, the call with the offer for my current position came. Once I was off of the phone with the dean, I paced around my apartment, crying happy tears, tears of relief, and chanting, “omigod omigod omigod.” This was my first job interview, and I fell in love with it on the campus visit. But, the celebration would have to wait. I was encouraged to meet with each of my four advisors about taking the job. Their advice ranged from “do what you want, it’s your damn life!” to “decline the offer” in hopes of something better (i.e., an R1 job). I had to go to family and friends if I wanted to share my excitement about landing the job that I wanted.

Am I A SLACer?

In addition to the pressure from my department to continue my search in hopes of an R1 position, I found little help in assessing if a liberal arts position would be a good fit for me. It seemed no one could tell me what working at a liberal arts college would entail, except the potential risks: becoming irrelevant in the profession; slowing down on research; and, being at a disadvantage if I applied for an R1 job later on. I struggled to find role models and stories of sociologists who worked at liberal arts colleges, particularly those who remained productive as researchers and visible in the discipline. How could I justify accepting my current position without having attended or worked at a liberal arts college in the past? What made me think I was a SLACer at heart besides my college dreams as a naïve 18 year old?

Fortunately, I found a few blog posts that helped me to make my decision. I found that research actually does occur at liberal arts colleges! But, many of these stories and essays hinted that some scholars know deep down in their heart/soul/mind that they are a SLACer. I have to admit, I did not feel naturally inclined toward any particular career path, whether R1, liberal arts, or maybe even applied jobs. I applied to both liberal arts colleges and research-intensive universities, as I assumed most candidates did in this tough job market, and entertained the possibility of shifting to applied jobs if tenure-track positions did not pan out. It seemed that so much stock has been placed in a R1/liberal arts dichotomy, but I could not find a professor who was truly an R1er at heart.  Maybe most people follow the expected R1 path without questioning it, or accept other positions if an R1 job does not come along?

Personally, the R1/liberal arts distinction was an inaccurate way of categorizing job possibilities. I was pretty damn sure that working at an R1 meant continued mental health problems, feeling disconnected from the community and advocacy, and working in a cut-throat and competitive climate. But, I was open to an R1 job that would afford a sense of synergy between my teaching, research, and advocacy – the qualities that attracted me to my current position. And, I needed to be in a place that, at a minimum, would not force me to hide that I am a blogger. I doubt I would ever find a fitting R1 job, but I am also aware that not ever liberal arts job would be a good fit either. In other words, there are so many other factors that make up “fit” other than, or maybe even instead of, the R1/SLAC distinction. Ultimately, I made a relatively blind leap of faith, resigning myself to the possibility that this would be my mistake to make, if it were a mistake.

One Year Later

One year into my position, I am definitely content, and optimistic that I will love this job once the adjustment period ends. And, I lived happily ever after…

Well, not quite. The conciliation prize from my graduate department that, “ultimately it is your life,” has arrived. No one has questioned my decision to accept my current position since I began. Well, no one except for me. Every once in a while, I hear my advisors’ voices in my head (which, I heard jokingly stated as a goal of graduate training) saying, “you know, you could still ‘go R1.’” And, when the spring semester ended, and I turned my attention (almost) exclusively to research, those voices grew louder. That is, along side amplified anxiety about tenure expectations and fears that I would not maximize my first summer on the tenure-track.

Unlearning the R1 bias has been a slow process. That question, “are you sureeeeee????” has prevented me from fully appreciated my current position. I am at the start of what ideally will become a very productive research career – shouldn’t I be at an R1, then? Did I take the easy route? What will I miss out on from the R1 world? I hate it, and I am disappointed in myself for letting questions that are no longer asked externally to continue to bounce around in my head one year later.

One mid-summer day, I went for a hike alone. My partner and I had a silly fight; rather than resolving it, I fled to clear my head. I stopped to sit on a rock, either to pray or meditate or some combination of the two. The first thought that popped into my head was to resolve things with my partner. I was being silly and stubborn, wasting time away from rather than with him. Then, I asked, “please, once and for all, let me have some sort of sign that I am on the right (career) path.”

Since I have been so critical of my graduate school experience, am I a coward for choosing against an R1 career, in which I would mentor future scholars? Uh, I have had it with this doubt, and guilt, and bitterness! I opened my eyes, and decided to call my partner to reconcile things.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

On my phone, I saw that I had an email from a grad student thanking me for my post, “More than R1,” and being a role model for her and other grad students who hope to pursue liberal arts careers. Wow. I had my answer. I can mentor grad students from anywhere; and, the bonus for me is being able to do so without the departmental constraints, norms, and traditions of a graduate training program. More importantly, if I finally conceded to the pressure to “go R1,” even if only self-imposed nowadays, I would be asking my partner to move and start his career over again. Since he is returning to school this fall, it would be incredibly selfish of me to interrupt his life (again) to appease the internalized R1 bias. There really are more important matters in life. I have a job that I like, in a place that I like.  Why the hell would I walk away from that, especially for a job that I already know will make me sick, dispassionate, and cranky?

So, I do not regret my decision. Unfortunately, I still carry some resentment that my search had to proceed as it did. But, I am working on relinquishing that resentment, and all of my bitterness from graduate school in general, to focus fully on appreciating this chapter of my life. I am fortunate to have a job, a good job, a job that I like. And, I do recognize that I received great training overall, which opened multiple doors to me. I hope, though, that graduate students are no longer pressured to pursue one career path over others, or feel that information about alternative paths is not available to them. We are overdue for becoming realistic about (and better prepare students for) the current job market, anyhow.

Can I Let Go Of Fear Yet?

Since the start of my graduate training, I have wrestled with fear related to my career in academia.  As the stakes have gotten higher, and my scholarly platform has expanded, that fear has remained a constant fixture in my life.  This is now my fourth year living with generalized anxiety disorder.  With my anxiety piqued after a recent short post-semester vacation, I began wondering whether a post on fear was relevant to other academics; maybe it is just a symptom of my own mental health.

After a quick Google search of “fear in academia,” I found that others had already written about it — and, that the fear-anxiety link is not unique to me.  Graduate students are afraid their graduate training will be in vain, at least in terms of securing a tenure-track jobContingent faculty are afraid that they will never get out of the trap of temporary academic employment — and that they may face retaliation for speaking out about the awful conditions of many adjuncts.  Those in tenure-track positions fear being denied tenure.  Those who ultimately decide to leave academia fear the unknown beyond the ivory tower — a path for which too few of us are trained.  And, if not controlled, an academic may know fear her entire life career.

I have had many conversations with my colleagues and administrators about my institution’s tenure expectations.  To be honest, the institution could give me an explicit set of guidelines — down to the number of publications, in what journals, the minimum acceptable teaching evaluations and pedagogical enhancement, and “safe” forms of service — and I would still be anxious en route to tenure.  Though I usually ask about research expectations, my concerns often shift to my public scholarship (i.e., blogging).  Is there a chance I would be denied tenure, or possibly terminated well before then, because of my public writing?  Each time, I am reminded that 1) I was hired, in part, because of my public scholarship, 2) it is essentially impossible that a stellar scholar-teacher would be let go over a blog, and 3) it seems strange that I am so worried about this unlikely scenario.

Where Is This Fear Coming From?

To be blunt, I do not offer my complete faith and trust to other people, especially those I only know on a professional basis.  And, I certainly do not trust an institution to have my best personal and professional interests in mind.  (Call it paranoia, if you wish.  I call it survival.)  I will believe tenure and promotion are likely when they are awarded to me.  Though we like to buy into the myth of meritocracy in academia, and believe that scholars and academic institutions are bias-free, I see enough evidence to the contrary in academia.

The oppressed person’s skepticism aside, I have also located this fear at the heart of my academic training.  Graduate school was not simply a time marked by fear of the future.  It was the training ground to become a fearful, obedient academic.  Effective academic professional socialization seems to demand that we hyperinternalize the criticisms of our advisors, experts in our field, anonymous reviewers, journal editors, conference panel organizers, and every other colleague we encounter, as well as our anonymous student evaluations.  Intellectual innovation is necessary to advance in one’s career — yet, anything too far outside of tradition and the mainstream may be punished.  Silence and conformity (and fear) become valued traits of a young scholar’s career.

Even as I publicly declared that I would pursue tenure my way — embracing the values of accessibility, authenticity, and advocacy — I still struggle 12 months later with the professional fear that I internalized in graduate school.  My first year on the tenure-track has been a roller coaster ride of speaking up and retreating into silence, authenticity and conformity, bravery and fear.

On one hand, I successfully fought for a career path that would allow me to be a vocal public scholar.  This work does not “count” (but, does lead to things that do).  I am relieved to find the reactions to this public scholarship ranges between indifference and pride; in other words, at least it will not count against me professionally.  Yet, it feels as though my institution is a bit of an outlier, especially while other universities are formally cracking down on scholars’ use of social media.

On the other hand, I intentionally left the beaten R1 path for the devalued liberal arts path, and actively and publicly pursue intellectual activism.  I often find that I am making it up as I go, with so much available advice that does not fit for me or my priorities.  I remain wary because I have yet to find a role model like me who was successful, despite/because of speaking up as a junior scholar.  Until I see that an uppity fat brown queer feminist activist-academic can successfully win tenure without a hitch, I imagine I will continue to wrestle with finding a happy balance.  I want to be healthy, happy, and authentic, but I also want job security.

I anticipate that I will have more to say on this in the future, hopefully with advice of ridding this fear once and for all!  Stay tuned.

Blogging As Autobiography

Ok, so I won't add photoshop to my list of "mad skillz."

Ok, so I won’t add Photoshop to my list of “mad skillz.”

I have participated in some sort of semi- or totally public form of social media since my early adolescence.  First, it was Myspace, Livejournal, and the discussion boards of a group for multiracial/multiethnic people.  I joined Facebook the year it was created.  I had taken to more formal social justice-related writing through Letters to the Editor and op-eds for my college newspaper.  By graduate school, I went totally “public,” with my first blog that was neither limited in access to my friends nor in its content.  So, now inching closer to age 30 by the day, I have been “at it” in this business, if you will, for over 15 years.  So, now, being asked by others about my decision to “self-disclose,” or being “so out there,” I hesitate before responding, “well, I guess most people don’t.”

These days, publicly writing about my personal and professional life feel like a mundane, everyday part of my life.  No matter my scholarly training, I have only one frame of reference for all things: my own.  Sure, I can readily cite what is known from research in my areas of expertise, or figure out how to find it in other areas.  But, the only solid perspective which I can readily access is my own view of the world.  What separates me from “most people,” though, seems to be  my willingness to do so publicly.

Before I get into why, I should take a moment to avoid giving myself too much credit.  There is never a time I write without intensely reflecting on whether I am in a position to even speak about a certain subject, and the consequences of deciding to speak publicly.  When I went on the academic job market, I combed my personal blog for any posts I deemed too radical or militant or even too personal.  Though I (anonymously) started Conditionally Accepted, I quickly deleted it, hoping it was a temporary job market-related need for release.  (I am so glad I decided to revive that impulse!)  And, there are posts on both this blog and my personal blog that I deleted before ever posting, or after they were posted because of (real or perceived) backlash.  Fortunately, with each time I write something personal or critical, even radical, and the sky stays intact (and I stay employed), I become braver the next time I chose to speak out.  It is far from a perfectly linear development, but I can see a return to my braver, more outspoken self that existed before graduate school.

Now, on to the why — why self-disclose, so personally, so publicly, and so often?  Well, the quick self-serving reason is the release I feel upon writing about a troubling (or even exciting) experience.  After few years of living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I have found getting shit bothersome stuff out of my mind and off of my chest is better than letting it eat at either or both.  And, yes, some things are shared only with the pages of journal on my nightstand.  Beyond that, sharing my own experiences is just one part of my larger project of intellectual activism.  I work to make my own scholarship — both teaching and research — accessible beyond the paywalls of college classrooms and academic journals.  Though I sometimes wrestle with feeling selfish for creating an academic blog for academics, I remind myself that this blog is, indeed, a form of intellectual activism.  It is my hope to make transparent the social problems that, too, plague academia; it turns out the ivory tower isn’t so immune to oppression, inequality, exclusion, prejudice, and exploitation after all.

In graduate school, I did not see myself reflected in course material nor in the professional socialization I underwent.  I had faculty with overlapping marginalized identities, but no one who shared my particular social location.  Though I bonded with other, similarly marginalized students, we did not always share our pain because it is tempting to hide it, or we did not want to burden others as they dealt with their own demons.  Also, as we were essentially in the same stage in our careers, we had little advice to offer to each other because we were still in the thick of it.  I did not have access to the stories of people like me — only what I assumed was true for most students and what my professors told me should be my experience and values.  Who knew I did not have to succumb to the pressure of taking a job at a Research I institution?  Who knew I could resist that pressure to actually feel happy, have a sense of balance, and not become “irrelevant” in my disciple as I was warned.

The good and the bad of creating Conditionally Accepted, now regularly telling my own story, is that I am one of few voices.  I am slowly discovering others who have been telling their stories for years now.  But, many others are looking to me to tell mine.  On top of the intense criticism one may receive in daring to “write in public,” some institutions and organizations have turned ignoring public scholarship into penalizing it.  And, in general, “it does not count.”  That all fuels a heightened sense of fear and the resultant self-silencing.  I have been commended by senior colleagues for my bravery — even requests to be cited for or speak about professional development.  (Y’all know I’m still suffering from my own impostor syndrome, right?!)

So, now a year after I secretly created this blog and then deleted it, I feel I have been assigned the task of telling my story — at least in hopes that others will be inspired to tell their own.  I am resisting the internal and external pressures to be silent, reclaiming power by pushing my story into the universe.  I hope for a day that scholars like me stop feeling alone, stop feeling that there is only one academic narrative to which they compare their own experiences and values, and stop feeling silenced and invisible.  In the mean time, stay tuned and consider contributing your own story!

Who Let An Activist In Here?!

(Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, 2005)

I have made compromises along the way — bit my tongue here, chosen success over authenticity there — in order to advance my training and career in academia.  With few people who look like me as mentors and professors, I suppose it seemed foolish to completely forgo any kind of caution and compromise.  Yeah, let’s go with that excuse.

But, the joke is often on me as my disguise as an apolitical mainstream scholar is recognized by colleagues and students as just that — a disguise.  I could not totally hide my activist self even if I tried; and, admittedly, I have never made the full effort to do so.

Who Let An Activist In Here?

Look at where I am in my career.  There is no need to brag here, but my accomplishments should not be overlooked.  In an era of second, third, fourth… rounds in the job market, with the majority of instructors holding contingent positions — unfortunately, disproportionately Black and women scholars — I am in a tenure-track position, fresh out of graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Add to that my marginalized social location, and my research interests in discrimination, sexuality, and the intersections among race, gender, social class, weight, and sexual orientation.  That is along with a list of service experience on my CV that clearly reflects community service — lots of it.  And, with a very public and provocative reputation on social media.  And, to my relief, securing this job has not turned out to be an error on the university’s part; they knew what they were getting and actually wanted someone like me.

I am here — a 28-year-old fat Black queer intellectual activist sociologist, in a tenure-track faculty position at the #25 liberal arts university in the US — after a series of compromises peppered with activism, advocacy, and authenticity.  It is not the path I intended, and I carry scars and regrets from it; but, I did the best that I could through the hazing process of graduate training.  I am keenly aware of the demands to conform, shut up, disappear, stress, jump and ask, “how high?”.  But, it has taken some time to recognize how professors, mentors, friends, and family supported and encouraged me to subvert, resist, demand change, speak up, and pave my own trail.

Activist Gone Academic

In the era of social media, regularly presenting and describing one’s self is now a regular task.  Since I joined Facebook in 2003, I have often described myself as an “activist gone academic.”  Now, a decade later, I am surprised I even had a sense of what these distinct identities mean, and a fuzzy sense of the loose relationship between them.  To give myself a little more credit, one of the major reasons for deciding on sociology as my major was to become a better, more informed activist.  That later served as one of the major reasons for pursuing a PhD.

Along the way, I had faculty and student affairs staff who supported my advocacy efforts and, more importantly, supported my effort to bridge academia and activism.  As a member of the campus activities organization, I created the “Cinema Series” — a monthly film series on social justice-oriented films (e.g., Crash, Brokeback Mountain, North Country) followed by Q&A facilitated by a professor.  As I co-led a campus group to advocate for greater services and resources for LGBT students (particularly the creation of an LGBT campus resource center), I had the support of a number of faculty.  Beyond those directly involved, I had a couple of professors who allowed me to use this initiative as a part of the major paper for their class.

The critical point where I was encouraged to bring activism and academia together was my sociology honors thesis.  As the initiative to create the “Rainbow Center” (LGBT campus resource center) stalled, I turned my attention to completing an honors thesis to increase my appeal to graduate programs.  Initially, I proposed studying LGBT activism on campus.  My advisor, Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to focus instead on a topic that would 1) provide further evidence for the need of an LGBT campus resource center and 2) advance my academic career.  So, I decided on the most obvious: attitudes toward lesbian and gay people among students.  With the mentorship of my other advisor, Dr. Ilsa Lottes, I published my thesis in the university’s journal for undergraduate research, presented it at the undergraduate research fair, and then she and I published another paper in the International Journal of Sexual Health.  These mentors demonstrated that academia could, indeed, serve as a vehicle to create social change.

And, Then Grad School…

A former professor of mine from my graduate program wrote a blog response to me about activist efforts in academia: “Why activism and academia don’t mix.”  I would say this sentiment generally reflects the department’s views on activism.  Oddly enough, there is (limited) support for public sociology.  However, the message that was sent to me was to limit how much service you do, keep it a secret, and producing knowledge (not producing change) was our top priority as researchers.  So, I followed suit — I kept my (community) service private and learned how to “mainstream” my research.  After all, graduate training is part training and part professional socialization.  We are resocialized to become scholars, not just to do scholarship.

I am not certain whether my grad school advisors would want me saying this publicly.  But, what the hell.  They deserve credit.  For all of my selling out, frustration, struggles, etc., I had support, even in graduate school, in developing an activist-academic career.  It all started with admitting me into the program!

An excerpt from the personal statement I sent along with my grad school applications:

My goal for pursuing Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Sociology is not only motivated by my desire to further my research experience and my ability to contribute to existing research, but is also motivated by my desire to become a knowledgeable, effective educator and mentor for future students and scholars. Having realized my passion for working with students outside of the classroom, eventually I hope to serve as a director of an on-campus resource center, such as the Women’s or LGBT Centers. More broadly, I hope to become an experienced scholar within the study of sexuality and related issues, and of Sociology, to increase the number of such scholars, thereby providing future students with a larger pool of potential advisors, hopefully preventing the feeling of “few and far between” that exists now.

Maybe the program saw me as “moldable.”  It is not as though I said I wanted to run a not-for-profit or become the next Dr. Martin Luther King.  And, to be fair, I do not know what my undergraduate advisors said in their recommendation letters.  And, the admissions committee waded through hundreds of applications, possibly not fully grasping what my personal statement is really saying.  But, they had some indication from the start of who I am and what my passions are.

It seems the support I received to develop a career as an activist-academic did not exist during the early years of graduate school — the nadir of my training.  But, that time was mostly spent in classes and serving as a teaching assistant.  I was merely a student — angry and a potential drop-out — in those days.

The support emerged in the latter half as I began doing my own research.  It was subtle, only visible to me after some time.  For one of my advisors, “my #2” in my mind, it crystalized for me as we were talking through what would become my first solo-authored publication.  “Wait… so this paper is pretty much about intersectionality!?”  Without skipping a beat, and without a hint of surprise, my advisor said, “yeah!  because that’s what you’re interested in.”  My surprise that I was being encouraged to so directly tie my passion to the research I was doing reflects a number of years of feeling the two could never co-exist.  Sure, intersectionality is a theoretical framework, not an activist initiative, per se.  But, in this conversation, it became apparent that this advisor’s approach to mentoring me intentionally drew in what I was passionate about (both as a scholar and activist).  And, the surprise to my surprise said so much — what other way is there to mentor a student?!

It took all six years, literally until the day I graduated, to see it with my main advisor.  It was never explicitly acknowledged, and it never took the form I would expect.  But, that is exactly why I did not see it.  Yes, for all of my critiques of the pressure I felt to “mainstream” my research, I can actually see the positive intentions behind it.  There was a great deal of “tough love” that aimed to push my efforts to make change via research on the biggest scale possible.  There was sort of an unspoken “go big or go home” — that being cutting-edge and critical are meaningless if it stays on the margins.

In a way, this reflected what I would call “slow-boil activism.”  I have certainly encountered a number of academics who push gently, evenly, and slowly so that they may advance to a more powerful position.  My own critique of this is how much one must bite their tongue and compromise to stay on this path, and that waiting to make a big difference in 5, 10, or 20 years is a gamble on time not promised to you.  But, I would be a hypocrite to disparage this approach because, in many ways, I am enacting this strategy on my own career.  My point, here, is that my chair, in his own way, was also supporting me in my development of an activist-academic career.

Concluding Thoughts

And, now, I am a professor at an institution that wanted someone who would bring about change.  I am not expected to hide my blogging and community service, as these are actually embraced; these were the strengths that were appealing when I interviewed.  Of course, I am certain the other appeal is that I have a strong research record.  (As I said, my career is one as an activist-academic.)  Now, I am in yet another chapter of my academic career in which the activist is supported.

I have already made the point that academia and activism do mix.  What I wish to emphasize here is that, though not always made explicit, I have benefited from the support of mentors and advisors who think so, too.  These were people who knew from the start who I am and what I am passionate about.  There may have been some potential advisors and mentors who avoided me because they took the position that activism and academia don’t mix; but, I had plenty who encouraged me to make the two mix in my career.  Contrary to the anti-activism norms that exist in many places in academia, there appear to be a few who, to some degree, are willing to support the bridging between the two.

Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

I wrote the following post the day before I defended my dissertation in mid-May.  Though some of the self-doubt has declined since finishing the PhD and starting my new job, I will probably have to continue working at undoing the damage of the “beating” that we call graduate training.

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Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

In her latest blog post, “On Racism, Inferiority, and the Self,” sociologist Crystal Fleming reflected on the sense of inferiority that too many members of oppressed groups feel.  She notes:

What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.  When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.

Unfortunately, even with a sense of pride in our identity and community, and the related rejection of the prejudices toward our group(s), we still experience the “sting” of such hostility:

But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.

To get past this, she argues for further rejection of the dominant society’s stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and hostility:

The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.

The Case Of Graduate School

I have made a life-long promise to myself to focus my energy as a scholar on advocating for social justice, liberating oppressed communities, and making academic knowledge and research accessible beyond the ivory tower.  In other words, I do not want to waste my energy on navel-gazing, doing research on academia, engaging in initiatives that promote academia for its own benefit.  Lately, I let myself get caught up in debates with some of my colleagues about research, but primarily from a concern of the impact research has beyond academe.  I will give myself a pass, but I do wish to return to scholarship (including blogging) that serves those outside of the academy.

In another way, I find myself reneging on this promise: reflecting on my time in graduate school.  This chapter of my life is coming to a close, and I will soon embark on the next as a professor at the University of Richmond.  So, in that regard, it makes sense that I would reflect on these past six years.  But, I also find myself reflecting, not just to myself but publicly as well, in a way that feels as though pent up thoughts are now gushing out.  Yep, it is as though I remained silent for six years, and now am releasing my tell-all book, albeit in snippets as blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts.  Again, I do not wish to write a book on graduate school — it’s been done, and can be useful, but I prefer to devote my energy as a scholar on work that serves others more directly.

BA Graduation ('07)

Where does this silence come from?  I recently reread a letter I wrote to myself, “A Letter to an Activist,” in which I reflected on my life and upbringing, my values, and my social justice-informed agenda as a scholar.  In it, I noted that I have been outspoken, challenging stereotypes, exclusion, and silences since the age of 5.  My first attempt at activism was demanding that my kindergarten teacher explain why I could only select one racial identity on a form for school.  That multiracial activism flourished, including challenging fellow students who insisted on using the term “mulatto” (possibly a derivative of mule, implying that interracial marriage is equivalent to cross-species breeding), and participating on forums for multiracial and multiethnic people.  Not even three months after coming out of the closet, I was organizing my high school’s National Day of Silence, which also flourished into bigger activism during my time in college.

With the support and encouragement of my parents to be proud of who I am, and to speak up, particularly to challenge injustice, I rarely knew silence and doubt (aside from the doubt many queer people must reject through coming out and rebuilding one’s sense of self).  I came to graduate school just as outspoken.

MA Graduation, IU ('09)

On one of the first days, a faculty member asked what we would do if the US reinstated the draft for military service.  (Six years later, the question still seems odd, its purpose and his agenda unclear.)  My cohort-mates, one by one, gave uncertain answers.  (Really, as a PhD student who would probably be excused, who has thought about what they would do?)  When my turn came, I offered, “even if they don’t ask, I would tell!”  My cohort-mates released a collective, unexpected laugh — as did I, feeling quite proud of myself for responding to a silly question with a silly answer (while simultaneously pointing out that I could not serve [pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal] as a queer person).  These days, that bravery looks much different, less humorous, and comes after a great deal more introspection and weighing the risks of speaking up.

Yep, just days from having a doctorate in hand, I actually feel less brave, more hesitant to speak up, than when I merely had a Bachelor’s degree.  I already knew that self-doubt set in, that my voice wavers when I speak, even in casual conversations with faculty.  It became painfully obvious when, during a visit to U Richmond, my partner pointed out that I seemed strangely unsure of myself when speaking with my future colleagues.  Almost daily, he is the sole audience member to my fiery rants about various current events and controversies in academia; he sees me singing at the top of my lungs and dancing around our apartment when I’m feeling good or sassy.  So, why the heck was I talking to my future colleagues as though I was a nervous, awkward undergraduate student?  (I wasn’t even like that when I actually was an undergrad!)

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

Unfortunately, the very training that is designed to empower me intellectually has also disempowered me in other ways.  The academy’s emphasis on status, expertise, and evidence (i.e. data) has humbled me — no, it has made be carry an overwhelming sense of doubt.  Besides these emphasized values, the professional socialization of graduate training has included a repeated wearing of my sense of self as a person of color, as a queer person, as an activist.  My introduction to “the classics” of sociology included token coverage of “people like me” — one week on feminist theory (including black feminist theory and standpoint theory) in my social theory course.  New projects were often criticized for lacking a “big question” because, as I was told, merely studying the lives of queer people, or Black people, or women is not interesting to the mainstream of the discipline; there must be some broader question in order for it to be broadly relevant.  There is a deradicalization that seems inherent to this professional socialization, as well, which, at times, were made explicit — the promise to “beat the activist” out of me.

So, I hear where Crystal is coming from.  I appreciate her insight and advice.  But, I must say, we face a nearly-impossible challenge of remaining whole as scholars from marginalized backgrounds when we are systematically bombarded with messages that say we are not good enough, that we are not smart enough, that are communities are not interesting, and so on.  Arguably, all educational training is like this, though I suspect things were a bit better for me because I consistently attended diverse (particularly in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality) schools that intentionally celebrated such diversity.  Graduate school has proved to be a different beast for me — at a Historically White College or University (HWCU), in a predominantly-white town, in a conservative state in the Midwest.

This self-doubt, a poison of which I am now painfully aware, is slowly draining out.  At the cusp of “Doctorhood,” I feel myself regaining some of the lost sense of empowerment.  I feel smarter.  I feel a bit braver.  But, it is not merely having the PhD that is returning me to my pre-graduate school sense of self.  Despite the promise to break you down to rebuild you, there is some extra beating-down that seems to occur for scholars from marginalized backgrounds, particularly if they come with activist-leanings.  So, some of this revival has been my own rejection of some of this professional socialization.  For my own survival, I have had to contextualize, distance myself from, or completely reject some of the values of (dominant, i.e., R1) academia.  It seems even Crystal has had to do some similar self-reflection to get to a better, healthier place in her career.

Concluding Thoughts

My take-away point is not to counter Crystal’s message, but rather to give a bit more context.  The dominant socialization processes, which contain values that are not completely relevant to or inclusive of members of marginalized groups, and that even devalue those groups, are enforced and reinforced systematically and through institutions.  We are bombarded with our simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility as caricatures and stereotypes in media, in schools, in politics.  Even in academia — where “average” students of marginalized backgrounds are not being let in — our competence is questioned.  We must do the work to constantly reject these indignities, stereotypes, and hostilities; but, we (all of us) must change institutions that transmit these values and ideas, as well.  It may be time that we stop “beating” students, switching instead to a model of empowerment.  Just a thought.