101 Big And Small Ways To Make A Difference In Academia

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Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia.  If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change.  But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time.  Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now!  But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.

Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking.  Please add your own ideas in the comments section!

  1. Educate yourself about the state of higher education, particularly in terms of inequality, increasing student debt, and the growing reliance on contingent faculty.  Learn about the leaky pipelines for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
  2. Let go of the myth of meritocracy in academia once and for all.  Do not perpetuate the myth by claiming or assuming that things are fair and equal.  Speak openly and honestly with colleagues and students about inequality in academia.
  3. Recognize community service as a form of service for yourself and others.
  4. Learn more about open access and other ways of making academic research and knowledge publicly accessible.
  5. Redefine “impact” to move beyond impact factors and citation rates.  Consider the impact your work has outside of the ivory tower.  Allow yourself to determine the value of your scholarship, rather than relying exclusively on what departments, universities, and disciplines value as important and meaningful.
  6. Stay true to your goals and values.  Do not let tradition limit your imagination.  Thinking outside of the box is good for science and higher education.
  7. Be brave.
  8. Speak up when you feel safe to do so.
  9. Empower your students and colleagues to speak up.
  10. Ask questions.  If a conversation or meeting raises concern, ask for further clarification.  This allows you to appear curious or possibly confused without automatically challenging someone else.
  11. Prioritize self-care.  Encourage others to do so, as well, or at least respect others’ need to make certain decisions at work based on personal and family needs.
  12. Talk to your students and junior colleagues about what academic careers entail for marginalized scholars.  Be clear that you are not attempting to scare them, rather you are preparing them for challenges that may lie ahead in their careers.
  13. Support graduate students no matter their career plans after graduation.  Begin a mentoring relationship with a conversation about their plans, and be sure to revisit this conversation every year or every other year.
  14. Educate yourself about alternative career paths for PhDs, or at least find resources to offer to students considering them.
  15. Be aware of the artificial hierarchies and rankings in academia and higher education, but do not let them influence how you interact with colleagues.
  16. Check your biases, stereotypes, and assumptions.  If you find that you hold them, find out how to eliminate them, or at least to suspend them in interacting with and evaluating others.  Ask trusted colleagues to call you out if you demonstrate bias; when they do, listen without getting defensive or feeling guilty.
  17. Check your privilege.  Avoid dismissing another person’s experiences or perspective just because it does not mirror yours.  Never tell a marginalized student or colleague about their own experience.  Figure out ways to use your privileged status to make a difference and to make space for marginalized people.
  18. Ask your students and colleagues for their preferred name and pronoun, and give your own.  Work to make these seem like a normal practice, rather than a special event when a transgender or gender non-conforming person is present.
  19. Blog and use other forms of social media.  Allow yourself to appear as an imperfect, evolving, thinking, and feeling human — not simply the static, perfectly-put together researcher reflected in articles and books.  Make yourself available outside of the ivory tower.
  20. Share your own narrative with colleagues and students, whether it is one of privilege (which you acknowledge), serendipity, or adversity.  Let’s stop pretending that there is one, clear, linear path toward becoming a professor, and that it is the only possible path after graduate school.
  21. Let go of the myth of color-blindness, gender-blindness, and other forms of “blindness” to others’ identities and experiences.  Rather, be conscious of difference and inequality, and find ways to proactively work against systemic discrimination and exclusion.
  22. Without resorting to tokenizing, be sure to include diverse voices and perspectives on conference panels, course syllabi, references, edited volumes, guest blog posts, etc.
  23. Get comfortable with self-promotion, especially if you are a member of one or more marginalized groups.  And, respect others efforts to promote their work, particularly because it is necessary to be successful in academia.
  24. Promote your colleagues’ and students’ work, particularly those from marginalized groups.
  25. Go beyond telling junior colleagues and grad students to “be careful” — and never say “shut up”/”be quiet.”  If you actually have a reason to worry about a particular individual (that is, stop automatically assuming junior scholars will be reckless anarchists), offer specific advice on navigating departmental, university, and disciplinary politics.  Explain why you are giving that advice, namely that you care about their success, well-being, and livelihood.
  26. When possible, make every effort to ensure that students or junior colleagues do not fall through the cracks or bear some burden because others could not be bothered.
  27. At least say hello to familiar faces — students, new colleagues, contingent faculty, administrative staff, etc.
  28. Avoid viewing colleagues as potential competition, even if you are applying for the same opportunity.
  29. Have lunch with students and junior colleagues, and make an effort to talk about something other than work or classes (if you/they are comfortable doing so).  It can be incredibly reassuring to see that one’s professors/senior colleagues are human, too.
  30. Don’t be an asshole.  Period.
  31. Learn how to disagree with someone without attacking them as a person.  If it is not really a right-or-wrong issue, find a way to offer a different, rather than “better,” view.
  32. Step up and step back in meetings.  Avoid dominating the conversation.  If you are chairing it, make an effort to allow everyone to speak.  Pay attention to see if junior scholars have remained silent or were silenced.  But, find a way to gently nudge if someone needs encouragement; avoid putting someone on the spot who may really not have anything to contribute.
  33. Learn about your department’s and university’s policies and practices regarding contingent faculty.  Find out whether there is anything you can do to improve the situation.
  34. Do not treat contingent faculty like servants, outsiders, or somehow inferior.  Treat them like humans first, and colleagues second.  Understand that their circumstances may be shitty, if not outright exploitative.
  35. Serve on important departmental, university, and disciplinary committees.
  36. Serve as department chair or a higher level administrator.
  37. Keep an eye on the balance of service in your department.  Definitely watch for disproportionate service falling on women faculty, either assigned or volunteered (especially as men faculty avoid it).
  38. When accounting for and advancing diversity, avoid nominal diversity — that is, simply counting “women and minorities.”  Find ways to embrace and celebrate diversity in the department/university culture.  Once marginalized students/scholars are in the door, make sure that they feel equally supported and included, and are making good progress in their work.
  39. Move beyond considering only race and gender as diversity.  Broaden race to race, ethnicity, nativity, and immigrant status.  Broaden gender to consider the inclusion of women and transgender and gender non-conforming people.  Begin to recognize and advance sexual identity, disability, social class, weight, religion, age, and family structure as other important dimensions of diversity.
  40. Move beyond a single-identity conceptualization of diversity.  Begin attending to the intersections among identities.  This will help to avoid systematically hiring the most privileged members of oppressed groups (e.g., white women, Black men).  This will also help to understand each individual’s lives holistically; for example, be careful not to view Black women simply as women or Black.
  41. Support working parents.  Educate yourself about your university’s family leave and other policies.  If possible, be willing to offer additional support using the (likely conservative) university policies as a minimum level of support.
  42. Go beyond being “not prejudiced.”  Be aware that oppressed groups, as a matter of survival, must be wary of intolerance or even violence.  Do not assume that not intentionally discriminating is enough for others to feel welcomed and included.
  43. Challenge biased comments and microaggressions in your classes.  Do not wait for students to speak up, as they may not feel comfortable doing so, or may even fail to see the problem — you are the instructor.  If you do not want to alienate the student who made the comment, foster dialogue about it rather than silencing or chastising them.
  44. Allow yourself to view your class as somewhat flexible and organic.  If something relevant or important is going on it the world or on campus, spend a few minutes at the start or end of class discussing it.  Having an honest, intelligent conversation about racism on campus, for example, may be more important in the long run than sticking rigidly to the syllabus.
  45. Let go of the myth of objectivity in research and the classroom.  Or, at least acknowledge that some cling to “objectivity” without noting that such a perspective is conflated with (or only afforded to) the view of white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West.
  46. Where possible, include overlooked and marginalized topics in your courses.  For example, cover transgender health in a course on health/medicine to demonstrate the relevance and importance of the topic (and trans communities in general).
  47. If you (must) use a textbook that excludes or distorts the lives of oppressed communities, explicitly point this out to your students and consider adding additional readings by and/or about members of these communities.
  48. Consider countering the systemic invisibility of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other oppressed communities in academia with the systemic exclusion of white middle-class heterosexual cis men without disabilities.  Start with oppressed voices, and only include those of the privileged if they are a useful complement.  Unfortunately, I must also advise being ready to defend this system against charges of “reverse discrimination.”
  49. Speak truth to power.  Do research that challenges others’ exclusive, biased, or distorted research.  Embrace your unique perspective (if you are marginalized) to influence a new way of viewing the world.
  50. Let’s be honest about pervasive mental health problems in academia.  Find out what resources exist on campus, in the local community, and online.  Recognize that many campus health centers fail to effectively address the needs of graduate students.  Be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing others’ well-being as “not my problem.”
  51. If you use images in your lectures or presentations, take a little extra time to ensure that you reflect diverse people and interests.  If you lazily choose one of the first images that comes up, you may end up exclusively with pictures of white men.  (For example, do a Google image search of “professor.”)  Make an effort to counter the stereotypical images that many students will carry.
  52. Educate yourself about universal design for learning.  From the start of developing a course, make efforts to make the material and discussion accessible to all students.  Avoid the pattern of simply accommodating students with disabilities when they are in your courses.
  53. Become critical of standard measures of academic ability and achievement, including the SAT, GRE, and other tests, grade point average, etc.  Educate yourself about the bias inherent in these exams that likely contribute to inequality in admission, retention, graduation, and funding.
  54. Acknowledge the high rate of sexual violence on college campuses — targeted against students and staff and faculty.  Learn about your university’s practices for handling reports of violence, and realize that few incidents are reported, and even fewer yield justice for the victims.  Educate yourself about ways to support survivors of violence.  Consider advocating for improving how sexual violence is reported and prosecuted.
  55. Respect or even encourage your students’ and colleagues’ activist efforts.  Avoid telling them activism is akin to bias, or cannot co-exist with academia, or is a waste of time.
  56. Be authentic.  Let students and colleagues see diversity in academia.  If you are marginalized, do your best to avoid sending the message that one must sell-out in order to succeed in the academy.
  57. Investigate whether your campus offers gender-neutral bathrooms.  If it does not, pressure campus administration to create gender-neutral bathrooms that are of the same quality and are as conveniently accessed as sex-segregated bathrooms.  If it only has one or a few gender-neutral bathrooms, push for the creation of more.  Create a map of campus that pinpoints where these restrooms can be found to publicize their existence and location.
  58. Educate yourself about the conditions for staff on your campus.  Are wages fair and equitable?  Are working conditions safe?  Are staff given a voice in administrative affairs?
  59. Attend your university’s safe zone/safe space training program.  Encourage your colleagues to do so, as well.  If they reply, “but, I am already so LGBT-friendly, I don’t need extra training,” explain that taking that extra step to demonstrate friendliness is necessary because many LGBT people assume the absence of it may mean hostility.  (It is a matter of survival in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic world!)  If your university does not have a safe zone/space program, consider starting one.
  60. Explicitly tell your students that you want them to do well in your courses — and mean it.  (I have always done this, and was told just recently that most professors don’t and, as such, students’ don’t assume it.)
  61. Encourage your students to meet with you during office hours.  It may help to offer an incentive, but I hesitate to encourage that it be required.  Be sure you have explained the purpose of office hours when you mention them.  If there are students whose performance concerns you, do not hesitate to (privately) ask them to meet with you — but, make clear that they are not being punished.
  62. Avoid trivializing students’ health concerns, including (and maybe especially) mental health problems.  Refer them to the proper health professional if necessary.  Do not attempt to assess the problem, how severe it is, or how to “cure” it if you are not a qualified health professional.
  63. When you give advice, still respect that others may ignore it.  Allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them.  Do not pressure a student or junior colleague to do what you think is “best,” especially if you do not know them beyond a professional relationship.
  64. Be mindful of power dynamics, particularly where you are in the higher position.  Students, junior colleagues, and others in the subordinate position may feel that your suggestions are demands.  They may hesitate to challenge you, correct your assumptions about them, and even to share certain (personal) details with you for fear of harm to their grades/job.
  65. If you are a mentor, encourage your mentees to consider having additional mentors.  Avoid presenting your perspective and advice as the only way.  If time allows and mentees are comfortable with it, consider holding joint meetings with their other mentors; this may save them the time of holding individual meetings about one issue, and then having to navigate potentially conflicting advice.
  66. Learn about contrapower sexual harassment.  If you teach about sexual violence, include this topic in your courses.
  67. Write op-eds and letters to the editor to the school’s newspaper about issues on campus or in the local community.  You may even offer a scholarly perspective to demonstrate how our everyday lives are actually connected to what we learn in the classroom.
  68. Make some concept or trend in your discipline accessible by writing op-eds and letters to the editor to local, national, or international media.  Or, write about your own research.
  69. Just as you ensure that working parents are not burdened by work, make sure that colleagues who do not have children are not asked to pick up additional work.  No matter one’s family situation, or reason for needing to leave work by 6pm, every worker’s personal life should be respected (especially if they are not officially paid for extra hours).
  70. On Twitter, participate in #SaturdaySchool, and then help build academic online communities by participating in #ScholarSunday.
  71. Work with your department and university — or demand of them — that standards for tenure and promotion be stated as explicitly as possible.  Ask that the rates of successful promotions be provided, including a comparison by race and ethnicity, gender, and other important statuses.
  72. Teach community-based learning courses.  Or, find less intensive ways to encourage working with the community.
  73. Start a scholarship.
  74. Commit to recycling and cutting waste.  Start a recycling program if your university does not already have one.  If you must print documents, use double-sided printing.  Encourage (or even require) students to email assignments.  If you scan documents that will be printed, take the time to eliminate dark areas to reduce wasted ink.
  75. Participate in your department or university’s Dr. Martin Luther King day celebrations.  If your school is closed, take a second to explain the significance of the day — don’t just call it a holiday.  If it is not closed, advocate for closing to observe MLK day or at least hold a meaningful ceremony to honor his legacy.
  76. Participate in Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, LGBT Pride month/week (varies by school), Disability Awareness Month, National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other national and regional celebrations.  If these celebrations are not recognized, start a committee to plan events for them.
  77. Participate in Take Back the Night and other Sexual Assault Awareness Month events.
  78. Invite graduate students to participate on important departmental committees.  Consider encouraging the graduate students to create and elect a representative position — or even multiple positions — and give them a vote.  When they vote or otherwise participate in discussion, genuinely listen and consider their input.  (Grad students are not dumb.  They will sense that you have only included them out of obligation or to appease them, but do not seriously consider what they have to say.)
  79. Take a developmental, rather than destructive, approach to the peer-review process.  View your role as a reviewer as one to advance a paper, which will ultimately advance science, rather than one of a gate-keeper or critic.  Avoid looking for ways to advance your own research or agenda.
  80. Put extra copies of books that you assign on reserve at the library and announce that you have done so in your classes (twice).  Some students will attempt to find ways around buying expensive textbooks, including some who will never obtain a copy and thus suffer in the course.  Do your best to find cheaper or free options in the first place.
  81. Investigate whether every building on campus is accessible.  Pressure or even work with university administration to renovate buildings that are currently inaccessible to all people, regardless of ability.
  82. Check your own and others’ classist beliefs.  Assume class diversity.  Do not assume that anyone in academia, whether student or faculty, comes from a middle-class or upper-class family.  Where possible, try to minimize out-of-pocket costs for classes, extracurricular activities, conferences, and professional development.  In evaluating students or colleagues, be mindful that some simply cannot afford special, or even some basic, opportunities.  Avoid confusing lack of resources with lack of commitment, motivation, or aptitude.
  83. Advocate for needs-blind admission into your university.
  84. Refrain from criticizing the ways in which oppressed people survive in oppressive institutions and societies.  If you are unwilling to support others’ survival, at least avoid adding to their plight with your judgement, criticism, or questioning their identity and politics.
  85. Teach your marginalized students how to survive in oppressive institutions and societies.
  86. Organize a fair or event with information and resources for maintaining healthy relationships.
  87. Investigate whether racial profiling occurs on/near your campus by campus or local police.  If it does, work to raise awareness about it, and with law enforcement to eliminate unfair and discriminatory practices.
  88. If you serve as an academic advisor, be proactive in reaching out to your marginalized and first-generation students, especially during their first year.  Encourage them to get involved with at least one group on campus or in the local community, and to meet with career services as early as possible.
  89. Honor the work of administrative staff in your department and elsewhere on campus by celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Day.  But, be sure to thank them for their work throughout the year, as well.
  90. Propose a conference panel on professional development tips for marginalized academics or on public scholarship.
  91. Practice random acts of kindness.
  92. Organize a social event for your department to get your colleagues out of their offices.
  93. Propose a newspaper program that provides local and national newspapers free to all students, staff, and faculty.
  94. Serve as a faculty or staff advisor for a student organization related to social justice.
  95. Conduct a campus-wide needs assessment for all or particular communities of marginalized students.  Make recommendations for change based on their needs and the campus climate.
  96. Stage a rally or protest about an issue about which your college has remained unresponsive or ignored completely.
  97. Create a campus resource center for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, international students and scholars, people with disabilities, first-generation students, or another disadvantaged group.
  98. Advocate for the creation of accessible, clean, and private spaces for breastfeeding and other needs of parents with young children.
  99. Challenge yourself to be more educated about social justice, more empathetic, kinder, and open to difference and change.
  100. Create an academic program or department that focuses on marginalized communities (e.g., racial and ethnic studies, women’s studies).
  101. Join the fight to minimize or eliminate the growing problem of college student debt.

Please add your own big and small ideas in the comments section.

“Don’t Sell Yourself Short”: On Starting My Own Business

WhitakerDr. Manya Whitaker, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Education at Colorado College. Though her degree is in Developmental Psychology, she teaches courses centered on social and political issues in education such as Diversity and Equity in Education, Education Policy, and Education Reform. Her research focuses on cognitive and social variables affecting the academic achievement of low-income urban students such as perceptions of self, parental involvement, teacher expectations, as well as race and social class.  Dr. Whitaker is also founder of Blueprint Educational Strategies, an educational consulting company that provides trainings and support for urban schools and families. 

In the post below, Dr. Whitaker describes the process of creating her own business, and offers advice for other academics who may consider doing so, as well.

“Don’t Sell Yourself Short”: On Starting My Own Business, by Dr. Manya Whitaker

One of the joys of being a scholar in an applied field like psychology or education is the ability to work on the ground with “real people.” In other words, as an educational developmental psychologist, my work happens to easily skip out of the Ivory Tower. Though I am trained as a developmental psychologist, my research is situated firmly within education. Largely construed, I investigate the sociocontextual factors that affect low-income students’ academic achievement. More simply put, I work with teachers, admin, and families to improve academic outcomes for marginalized students. For many years, this took the form of teacher in-service workshops focused on parental involvement. Because schools serving underrepresented demographics struggle with facilitating meaningful parental participation in children’s schooling, I help them figure out how to access, communicate with, and engage “hard-to-reach” parents.

As an off shoot of that work, I was often asked to hold workshops at small conferences or to sometimes attend open houses and speak to parents. Once word got out that a young Black woman was working with families in urban schools, I received more requests to give keynote addresses, tutor, or come speak to first generation hopefuls at area high schools. I ended up spending so much of my free time doing such things, I had no choice but to cut way back. But, in cutting back I realized how much I missed engaging with people in ways that affect immediate change. There is something special about sitting in a family’s home, at their kitchen table, speaking with the very people who constitute the “subject” of your research. I enjoyed hearing their stories and brainstorming ways to help their children. I liked being an advocate for families who may not have the time, energy, or information to effectively advocate for themselves.

While talking to a good friend who has much more of an entrepreneurial mind than me, it dawned on me that I could start an educational consulting business. Like a good researcher, I did some investigation into what it meant to run a small business. I spoke with my father who has successfully run his own small business for over a decade. I spoke to friends with all kinds of businesses in varying stages of businessdom. While the initial work seemed intense, the service itself was no more work than I’d been doing for free. And as my father always says “don’t sell yourself short”…so I decided not to.

Before I got into the nitty gritty of starting my business, I paused to consider the implications for my full-time career as a tenure track professor. Was this even ethical? Was I violating some implicit agreement between myself and the Academy? Did my knowledge and skills belong solely to the institution and its concomitants? No, surely not. That’s absurd….right?

The fact that I paused to think about this quandary more than once speaks to the ways in which academics are inculcated into academia in a sometimes unhealthy manner. I’m not sure what it is about graduate school that makes one’s intellectual property feel like the property of others. It might be the fact your advisor or committee has so much control over what you actually produce, that it indeed feels as though your words aren’t your own. Or maybe it’s the publish or perish mantra that really means “it is your duty and obligation to publicly share your thoughts for the good of the public.” I find it odd that in other professions, people are paid well for the knowledge and skills they spend years acquiring and refining. But academics are expected to share their assets solely for the glory and grandeur of it? Yes, tenure is a huge benefit that is often directly correlated with the amount and quality of one’s scholarly contributions; however, other professions have this too. They call it a “promotion” or a “raise.”

Getting Started

I decided that I, too, deserved a promotion and a bonus for all the extra work I do to translate my research into practice. I therefore brainstormed company names (of course that was my first task—it was by far the most fun), chose colors, hired an artist to create a logo, and filed my business as an S-corporation with the federal and state government. Then the school year started.

Being realistic, I knew that starting a small business in August was not the best timeline. I knew once school started my efforts would be 100% devoted to a successful first year on the tenure-track. I made plans to reengage with my business in June of the following year, and I did just that. This past June, I conducted market research on types of services, prices, and timelines of most interest to my target demographic. I also asked them about the possibility of utilizing consulting services via social media and other popular forms of technology in lieu of face-to-face interactions. I was surprised to see that most participants in my pseudo-study were more concerned with the price of services than the mechanism through which they would be delivered.

After creating a list of services and running my pricing models by other entrepreneurs in similar fields, I created marketing materials. Besides business cards, I also ordered rack cards, folders with my logo on them, and printed a “menu” of services with accompanying fees. I considered creating a Facebook page, but that didn’t seem like it would be worth my time and effort. If I know anything about education, I know that information spreads through word of mouth, not written materials. To help spread the word about my business, I did two things: the first was becoming an affiliate member with the gym where I am a member. The second was offering a 20% referral bonus. The latter is how I secured clients 2 and 3. I considered advertising my services in the newspapers of the local colleges, but the cost would offset the potential financial gain, so I decided against it.

I’ve been in business a few short months, but so far it’s going well. The academic year started a few weeks ago and I admit that it’s tough coming home from a full-time job to do more work. But it is very much worth it. My clients are extremely appreciative and more than willing to refer me to their family and friends. That’s more than can be said of the outcomes of publishing in academia.

For the professors who think that maybe they too want to start a business, I have a few bits of advice:

  • Be clear in why you want to start a business. Writing a mission statement should be one of the first things you do. I referred to the Small Business Administration for help in creating a business plan, deciding my business structure, and learning about the legalities of owning a business.
  • Research your market. Ask them what services are of interest, how much they would be willing to pay, and any other information necessary to execute your idea.
  • Apply for grants to help fund your business. There are dozens of grants for women and people of color specifically for small business owners.
  • Similarly, make a budget. And make sure your budget includes the taxes you pay on your earnings. This will also help you decide appropriate price points for your services/products.
  • Be realistic in your timeline for development and growth. Starting a business takes a lot of time and thought. Decide if this is the appropriate time in your life to start such an important endeavor. Once you have clients, it is unlikely they will care as much about your tenure clock as you.
  • Start small. Offer your services/products for free or at a reduced cost for a while. Then, have those clients write reviews and help spread the word about your business.
  • Grow slowly. As you gain clients, it will be tempting to hire more people to help you meet the demand; however, remember that like being a professor, owning a business is a learning process. Consider the pros and cons of having employees and/or business partners. Always refer back to your mission statement as your guiding rule.
  • Continue to improve your product. It is not only articles that benefit from a good R&R (revise & resubmit).

To other professors for whom owning a business is not desirable, I encourage you to find other ways to utilize your talents. Perhaps you could write a blog, or better yet, children’s books! Perhaps you can volunteer in community organizations providing services to those who will not get to meet you within the economically discriminatory walls of academia. Or perhaps you can just talk to whomever you please about whatever you please, without the pressure of “perishing” after the conversation. The knowledge is yours to do with what you choose.

Dr. Wendy Christensen Reflects On Year 2 Of The Tenure-Track

Wendy ChristensenDr. Wendy M. Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her research focuses on how inequality shapes political participation.  In her free time she loves reading feminist theory and mysteries (and feminist mysteries!), running, and drinking beer.  You can learn more about Dr. Christensen on her website and on Twitter at @wendyphd

Below, Dr. Christensen reflects on her second year on the tenure-track — teaching, research, and service — specifically highlighting what worked and what did not.

Reflections Of My Second Year: Teaching, Research, and Service

It is the end of my second year in my tenure track position.  I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I have developed some strategies for surviving (and even thriving!).

Below, I describe some of what has worked and what hasn’t for me this past year.

Teaching

What Worked?

  • Less is more. I plan less for class and allow for organic discussion. I assign less reading, making sure the important readings are done thoroughly instead of assigning lots of readings that just aren’t going to be read.
  • When it comes to documentaries, more is more! There are tons of great sociology documentaries in the areas I teach in (Social Movements, Social Stratification, Intro, Methods) so I decided to splurge and show a full-length documentary (one that takes up a whole class period) every 2-3 weeks. At first I felt guilty. Am I’m slacking off? Then, a colleague pointed out that I’m letting people speak about their own experiences. As a feminist teacher, that is something I strive for. The films I’ve shown have been touchstones for students throughout the semester. In fact, during the last week of my Social Movements class they were still talking about the film I showed the first week — The Life and Times of Harvey Milk! The True Meaning of Pictures sparked one of the best student-driven class discussions I’ve ever had on objectification and authenticity in research!
  • Short, regular low-stakes reading reactions are a win-win. They keep students doing the reading, thinking about them and writing regularly. And they are super easy and fast for me to grade on a simple 4-point scale.
  • Google Drive has been fantastic this semester for students in my Methods courses. They use Google Drive to share assignments (interview questions, survey results etc.) with me. I can comment, and they are able to peer review each other’s papers through real time editing. Learning to use Google Drive has helped them give up their USB drives for a real backup system.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Attendance. I’m giving up on taking attendance. I will continue to do it (using a seating chart) for the first couple weeks of classes to learn names, but after that it’s a waste of time. It’s demeaning. They are adults and can decide whether to come to class. If they miss class, they’ll miss key information, and won’t get credit for in-class assignments.
  • Google Drive. Yes, it worked, but I need to find a way to manage the email notifications that come when I get assignments. Since committees and my department also use Google Drive, my inbox was flooded with updates and comments and shares all semester. There has to be a way to manage that.
  • Assignments due at the end of the semester. Weekly reading reaction papers helped spread the grading out somewhat, but I need to move up the due dates of bigger papers (drafts, etc.) so that they aren’t all due at the end of the semester.

Research

What Worked?

  • Simply writing. When I don’t think too much about writing—when to do it, where to do it, how stressful it might be etc.—then I am more able to just sit down and write. Overthinking about writing itself is a big time waste when I really can just spend the time writing.
  • I had a big writing wake up call this semester. In February attended my usual yearly feminist retreat, the winter meeting of Sociologist for Women in Society for my booster shot of empowerment. At this meeting I learned that I was being too much of a perfectionist about my writing. My mentors wisely convinced me that I am not allowed to be the judge of my own work. On the tenure track, I just need to write, finish drafts, and just send them out—for feedback and for publication. I left the meeting with a whole new outlook on writing. As a perfectionist, I am not allowed to decide when something is “done” because then it will never be done! This quote sums up my new approach: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”– Alain de Botton.
  • Regular writing. Yes, I’ve read about this before, but over the past year I really put it into practice. Writing in little chunks as close to daily as possible (~4 days a week) makes writing much easier. If I wait too long between writing sessions, I’m more frustrated and get less done.

What Didn’t Work?

  • A set schedule of what to do every hour. I tried making a schedule and mapping out my day. It didn’t work. Meetings, weeks with lots of grading, informal conversations with colleagues etc. all got in the way of the schedule. It stressed me out. I know this works for some people, but it’s not going to work for me.
  • Perfectionism. See above. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Failure, rejection? Trying again? Those things are all better than nothing happening at all!

Service

As a second year faculty member, I am not longer excused from service.

What Worked?

  • Doing service I care about. Each committee I’m serving on means something to me. I’m on the Curriculum Committee instead of Assessment (I’m not a big test person), and the Student Retention Committee instead of the Budget Committee. I’m on the LGBTQA Advisory Board and that counts as university-level service, so I’m steering clear of the faculty Senate for now. The colleagues I work with on these committees care about the same issues I do, and that’s energizing.
  • Consistency. Every year in our department we volunteer for committees. I decided to not try anything new, so that there isn’t a big learning curve again for new committees in the fall. Everyone is happy with my current level of service, so I’m keeping it exactly where it is.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Doing too much! Yes, like many junior faculty, I am terrible at saying no. What am I supposed to do when asked to be on the Race & Gender Project Board?  Say no?  Hell no! I did say no to being the chair of that committee, though!

What has your year been like?  What has worked for you and what do you still need to work on?

Dr. Nyasha Junior Won 10 Faculty Awards (And You Can, Too!)

N JuniorDr. Nyasha Junior is a scholar/teacher whose research focuses on feminist and womanist biblical interpretation.  She is passionate about CrossFit, grits, and BBC television.  And, she writes about teaching, academia, and offers advice for students on her blog, No Extra Credit.  See more about Dr. Junior on her website, and follow her on Twitter at @NyashaJunior.

Below, Dr. Junior offers a fun way to celebrate one’s own accomplishments for the past academic year. Enjoy!

How I Won 10 Faculty Awards (And You Can Too!)

It’s that time again! At the end of each academic year, like most faculty members, I have to complete an annual faculty productivity report. In this report, I provide details regarding my productivity as defined by some ad hoc committee from the Neolithic era. I give highlights of my year in four areas: publication and research; service; teaching; and professional development activities. I repeat what I wrote in a meeting with a designated administrator, and the report becomes part of the fabled “official file.”

I am an African-American straight, cisgender woman in a tenure-track position at a divinity school. I am a biblical scholar, and my year has been productive in terms of the four productivity areas. Still, the things that I am most proud of are not reflected in the report. In academia, rewards can be few and far between, and only those things that are deemed worthy by a committee are acknowledged. But no more!

This year, I am not waiting for my accomplishments to be recognized. I will not go gentle into that good night. I refuse to allow my good work, great retorts, and fabulous outfits to go unnoticed. Therefore, I hereby nominate my bad myself for the following 10 Me, Myself, and I Faculty Awards.

10. Best post-faculty-meeting huddle convener
9. Best redirect of an incorrect answer
8. Best short, sweet, and cold-blooded email
7. Best recovery from a bad twist-out on a teaching day
6. Best show of restraint in the presence of a rookie colleague
5. Best final assignment handout and rubric designer
4. Best 5-minute face after oversleeping
3. Best No! to service “opportunity” with accompanying silent stare
2. Best cute, cold weather teaching outfit
1. Best Yoda-like office hours mentoring

And the winner is:

Me!  In every category!  Gasp!

You can do it, too! It’s not a competition. You’re the selection committee. You’re the only entrant. You’re the only winner!

Here are the rules:

  • You must nominate yourself for 10 things. One is not enough. You need to really reflect on all of the wonderful things that happened this year.
  • You must not include things that appear on your CV, annual productivity report, or on any official document. Dig deep for those things that are usually overlooked.
  • You must include only positive things that you did (or did not do). This is not a time to thank the entire cast and crew, the Academy, your stylist, etc. Just you!
  • You must not use this exercise as an opportunity for thinking about what did not go well this year. It is likely that you dwell on the negative quite enough. Keep it positive! The saints would call this a “praise report.”

In which categories would you nominate yourself for awards?

I know. I know. You wouldn’t nominate yourself. You have issues with self-promotion. But try. Be creative.

I’m going to collect my swag bag, do a few post-award interviews, and go to the after party!

Share your awards in the comments!

Blogging Counts!

May I rehash the “should I blog or not?” debate for just a brief moment?  In the days that I have been too busy to directly connect with the community outside of my university — last year, dissertating while on the job market, and now as an overwhelmed new professor — I have settled for using social media to make academic scholarship accessible and to make a difference in generalNo matter the risks, blogging can have some impact, hopefully in others’ lives, but academic bloggers, too, may find that these “extracurricular activities” count for something (including research).

Since I started Conditionally Accepted last July, I have received the following invitations to speak, present, or write:

  • To write guest blog posts for Inside Higher Ed: January 22, February 25, March 31, and April 23 (with University of Venus)
  • To interview with the grad student editor of ASA’s Section on Medical Sociology winter newsletter
  • To present on a panel about open scholarship (in my case, intellectual activism) at Virginia Commonwealth University
  • To guest lecture to Dr. Jessica Fields’s graduate level professional seminar in sexuality studies at San Francisco State University (via Skype)
  • To give the keynote speech at the Sociology and Anthropology Honors Ceremony Randolph-Macon College
  • To present on a panel about navigating LGBTQ identities in academia at the upcoming American Sociological Association meeting
  • To present on a panel about using social media as a professional development tool at the upcoming American Sociological Association meeting
  • [Declined] National conference panel on LGBT health
  • [Declined] Panel about LGBT inclusion at a three-day diversity in higher education conference
  • [Declined] National conference panel about navigating the academic job market

Okay, so I said “yes!” to most of these invitations.  I stand by my point that actually entertaining the idea, at least without automatically saying “no!”, has been tremendously helpful to my self-esteem.  For example, when I was introduced before my keynote speech at Randolph-Macon College last night, I heard how genuine the faculty were in being impressed with my advocacy (and my publication record).  I asked myself, why don’t I regularly feel so valued?  Often, your value and success is a given in your home department; and, it is not your colleagues’ job to feed your self-esteem.  Hey, all the more reason to find external appreciation!

But, the personal significance aside, I want to emphasize that I received ten speaking/writing requests in 10 months, primarily because I write publicly about my experiences in academia.  As a first-year professor, I have been invited to speak on a few panels about professional development.  I admit, that also means that I have to quiet the voice that says, “well, it’s clearly a low bar — just write a blog post”; but, self-doubt aside, that is the key point — anyone can write about academia and likely find some interested audience who wants more.  Blogging counts!

One Reason To Consider Saying “Yes” To Service

Image Source: HuffPo (http://huff.to/MwaapI)

There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student.  As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way.  And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia.  (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.)  I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.

But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever?  Here, I do not mean  — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews.  What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups?  Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?

Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.”   At least three reasons.  And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”

Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)

I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work.  Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV.  I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world.  But, even my weekends are spent recovering.

Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service.  I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers.  I miss talking about something other than academia.  (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.)  I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.

Scholarship In Action

Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research.  But, our students are a select (privileged) group.  And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated.  And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom.  Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful.  But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms.  Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!

Feel Appreciated And Respected

Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place.  “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me?  there must be a mistake!”

An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class.  The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia.  That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception.  Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations?  Wow!

By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations.  That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing.  Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place!  People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined).  I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute.  I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals.  At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives.  I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities.  Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist.  Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.

Conformity is overrated.  And it is bad for science and higher education.

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.