Authenticity Vs. Success

Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure.  I fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined).  Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community.  I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.

Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?

The Setup

I have done it all “right.”  Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal.  I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week.  I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule.  You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.

But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values.  Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break).  I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests.  This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list.  In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans.  And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).

Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.”  I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that.  And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”

Or, So I Thought…

So, I have done everything “right.”  But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down.  Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress.  Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this.  But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once.  Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.

And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself.  The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire.  The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes.  The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school.  The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.

Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up.  Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul.  The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.

The Meltdown

The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits.  By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years.  On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical.  By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office.   I began to cry on the drive home.  It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.

When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story.  I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now.  Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time.  After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.

Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.”  I did not want him to go there.  It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job.  And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts.  So, why would I be upset?

I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues!  Of course, no place is perfect.  And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part.  But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.

Naming It

It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right.  First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones.  This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors.  Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors.  Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.

Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself.  I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?”  The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job.  And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.

Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer.  Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May.  It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.

Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me.  I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia.  But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline.  Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest).  And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.  As I  tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules.  It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals.  To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well.  This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:

  • It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional.  It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting.  That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
  • It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places.  It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
  • It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track.  It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death.  That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.

I could go on forever.  The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things.  It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status.  And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.

The Role Of Tenure

Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free.  If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom.  I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”

  • Tomorrow is not promised to me.  The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right.  He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college.  I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
  • My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision.  They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
  • My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations.  I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago.  Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
  • Obsessing about tenure Devoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself.  Yes, blaspheme!  Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals.  If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others.  And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
  • Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right?  Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever.  And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises.  So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.

So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.”  The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success.  A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction.  That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful.  Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.

If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model.  I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers.  And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself.  And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia.  So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.

I leave you with my current musical obsession:

Shit Academics Say.

In the spirit of releasing the toxins of my graduate school days, I wish to do one more detox as I wade into the next chapter of my life as a professor.  I have already noted that time and distance have tremendously helped to heal some old wounds.  So, too, has moving out of the days of having to answer to and be molded by someone else (and now, refusing to do so on the tenure-track) and defining my own path here forward.

But, throughout, just disposing of some of that emotional and mental garbage is all it takes to feel free.  It’s just a shame that so many concerns about jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. rob us of outlets to really vent without repercussion.  So, I had taken to sprinkling vague references to offensive and unjust incidents throughout my blogs.  I’m just going to do it, once and for all, to get it out of my system.  But, I will still keep identities and contexts masked, unless it was shared in a public (and easily found) venue.

Sh*t Academics Have Said

Yes, I know the “sh*t [x group]” says is old, and became tired and repetitive rather quickly.  But, I still like the framing because there were some good and/or funny versions (e.g., “white girls to black girls“; “cis people to trans* people“; “everybody to rape survivors“; “black gays“; “white people to Asians“; “[straight] girls to gay guys“). I just found this one actually about academics and accessibility.  So, here it goes…

    • “You’re gay – do you like my shoes?”
    • “You all have ghetto booties!”
    • “What’s a Black Panther?”
    • “All Black guys have six-packs.”
    • “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”
    • “Can I touch your hair?  Omigod, please stop me.  I shouldn’t be touching your hair!”
    • “Aren’t fellowships for minorities a form of reverse racism?”
    • “Man up!”
    • “Don’t do that — that’s girly.”
    • “I don’t think homophobia is a problem anymore.”
    • “You don’t have to get uppity!”
    • “A little anxiety is good for you.”
    • “I mean, is it possible that these students came to graduate school with mental health problems?”
    • “You’ll have to remind them that you’re Black.”
    • “Don’t worry — you’re Black.  You’ll get a job.”
    • “You’re not going to get a job.”
    • “So, lesbian and gay falls under the umbrella of transgender, right?”
    • “I think you’re overreacting [about racism].”
    • “You know, as a woman of color, you really shouldn’t show up late.”
    • “Where is the hotel lobby?  Oh, you don’t work here?”
    • “The students here are kind of stupid.”
    • “Community service?!  Not before tenure.”
    • “You have anxiety?  What — too much service?”
    • We live in a “post-racist” society
    • Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.
    • “She didn’t get the job because she’s a party girl.”
    • “You’re not going to get a job by studying trans* people.”
    • “She teaches an immigration course.  Can’t she teach race, too?”
    • “Do not have a baby before tenure!”
    • “You’re not really Hispanic.  You don’t even speak Spanish!”
    • “Why would you tell anyone that you’re Black when you can pass [as white]?”
    • “You’re not like other Black people.”
    • “Can’t you just breastfeed in the bathroom?”
    • “I don’t know who the new secretary is, but, I’m sure she can help you.”
    • “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”
    • Activism and academe don’t mix
    • “But, you’re research interests [on race and sexuality] are so narrow.”
    • “So, what are you?”

On A Serious Note

There is an element of fun and humor to naming these rather hurtful comments.  These are, by definition, various instances of microaggressions — or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative” slights and insults toward people of color, women, queer people, fat people, and other marginalized groups.  These seemingly innocuous comments and actions are compounded by more obvious, major expressions of prejudice and discriminatory acts, and symbols in the environment that devalue marginalized people and/or elevate the values of privilege people.

So, in my experience, these verbal and interactional slights are just one (albeit common) manifestation of racism, heterosexism, and fatphobia in academia.  I also saw few faculty like me — scholars of color and LGBT scholars, in particular; my graduate department regularly struggled to recruit students of color.  My classes were held in a classroom named for a revered old white man scholar (whose picture watched over us), within a building named for another revered old white man scholar — all of this, at a school that continues to struggle to diversify its student body and faculty.  Within class, curricula regularly featured the work, perspectives, and voices of heterosexuals, cisgender people, whites, and men (especially white heterosexual cismen), and studying particular marginalized populations was not seen as rigorous as taking on a mainstream concept or theory.

What’s worse is that the pressures of the job market, tenure, promotion, and general status-mobility in academia force us to be silent about these realities.  If I played it completely safe, I would wait until tenure to finally open up about these experiences.  That would mean 13 years of silently dealing with microaggressions, discrimination and harassment, double-standards in evaluation, and tokenism — and, the real consequences for my livelihood and well-being.  But, guess what?  I could do everything the white right way and still find myself without tenure and a job in seven years.

Academics, we have a problem.  There is major need for change.

Further Reading And Resources (Again)

On Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Academia

The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone.  And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.  But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem.  The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership.  So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.

Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School

Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender.  In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings.  Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color.  But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day.  The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time.  One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings.  And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.

And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty?  One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color.  These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity.  However, you may be trading comfort for marketability.  A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs.  Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring

Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  But, problems remain.  Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.

For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women).  And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.

When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.

And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:

[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.

So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).

But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices.  Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions.  Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion

Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.

The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it.  During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure.  Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”

I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.

Racist And Sexist Climate

Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities.  It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.

[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.

In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.”  For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty.  And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.

No Better, No Worse

I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities.  Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy.  Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.

Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities.  Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation.  While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them.  But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities.  Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.

I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion.  This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out.  For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates.  There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs.  I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down.   My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.

Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in.  Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond).  These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down.  And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.

The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.

On Sexism And Sociology: Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Most sociologists know the adage that is fundamental to (much of) sociological thought — “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” — the Thomas theorem.  It is so widely known and used that few actually cite the original source, noting simply, “according to W. I. Thomas…”

I looked to formally cite this notion in my dissertation, which meant having to search for the source.  So easily found: The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (1928) by William Issac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.

Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Wait – what?  Never in my life had I heard of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  It seemed odd that the second of only two others is rarely, if ever, cited when referencing the Thomas theorem.  Is it really that hard to say “Thomas and Thomas” or “Thomas et al.” or “the Thomases”?  I figured the mystery surrounding author number two had something to do with her being a woman academic in the early twentieth century.

I decided to do some digging to see who Dorothy Swaine Thomas is, and whether others had taken note on the conspicuous absence of her contribution to this important sociological theorem.  I thought others may have been wary of her contribution because she was seen as an assisting author, particularly as William’s wife, than a “legitimate” co-author.  Maybe she is otherwise irrelevant in terms of sociological research, theory, and knowledge.

Simply clicking her name on the Amazon page for The Child in America, I saw that she published upwards to 30 books.  Okay, so she is hardly irrelevant, even by the least generous standards.  (By all means, even co-publishing one pivotal book counts as relevant in my mind, but others may have higher standards of “relevance” to the discipline.)

Digging deeper, I saw that she was actually quite influential in sociology, as well as demography.  She began publishing research as early as age 22, and had her PhD by age 25.  She was the first woman professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  And, she served as the first woman President (and, earlier, Vice President) of the American Sociological Association, and also served as President of the Population Association of American.

Let’s call it what it is: she was an academic badass.  Of special personal interest: “Although Thomas considered herself a social activist, [her adviser William] Ogburn persuaded her to become a ‘scientist,’ which in sociology meant a quantitative, preferably statistical approach to social issues” (from the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology online).

So, I am left wondering why I had never heard or read about Thomas prior to my own search.  Especially because:

Thomas’s contributions to sociology were nonetheless substantial. Her high standards and clear thinking helped professionalize a discipline criticized for its armchair theorizing, jargon, and do-goodism. Despite the controversy that surrounded the Evacuation and Resettlement study, the Supreme Court later accepted it as a major resource in documenting a national wrong perpetrated by the government against its citizens.

The quantitative work Thomas pioneered helped gain sociology foundation support and provided a beachhead for women who might otherwise have been excluded from university positions. For her contributions to demography the University of Pennsylvania awarded Thomas an honorary degree in 1970 (from Blackwell).

On Sexism And Sociology

A good guess would be sexism.  Though she was successful, her career was not without the constraints of sexism:

Job prospects were also not encouraging. Although women of Thomas’s generation were earning doctorates in sociology in increasing, if still relatively small numbers through the late 1920s, these graduates were effectively excluded from jobs in university sociology departments through a pattern of formal rules and informal understandings.

Unfortunately, some of her success came with the dilemma that many women scholars continue to face – the tension between authenticity and success/relevance:

Thomas experienced the pressures of being scrutinized by members of an overwhelming majority, however kindly disposed. As a result, she not only shared the outlook, the professional ethos, and the passion for objectivity of Ogburn and other male objectivists, but was one of the most ardent practitioners of their brand of sociology. Otherwise, she would almost certainly not have realized the success she did.

At the same time, had she not had so constantly to prove her professionalism and objectivity, she might not have remained wedded to so narrow a conception of her discipline, might have produced richer and more valuable insights into human behavior and perhaps even a body of theoretical work more to modern taste. Viewed in this way, Thomas’s sex exacted a toll for the very reasons that she was so eminently successful in overcoming the limitations it imposed.

The Erasure Of Thomas’s Contributions

These constraints aside — blocked job opportunities, and the way “trading power for patronage” shaped her career — there appears to be some erasure of Thomas’s contribution to sociology.  In a review 244 introductory sociology textbooks (1945-1994) to assess citations of The Child in America, particularly for the Thomas’ theorem, R. S. Smith (1995) noted:

There  I was surprised to discover that W. I. Thomas was not the sole author of [The Child in America]; rather it was co-authored by Dorothy Swaine Thomas..  It was this experience that started me thinking about all the times I had seen [the theorem] quoted but had never once come across Dorothy Swaine Thomas’s name (p12-3).

Most of the textbooks that cited the “Thomas theorem” merely credited W. I. Thomas.  So, why is Dorothy’s work ignored?  Apparently, she was primarily responsible for the book’s data collection and analyses.  But, those parts are central to the book.  While she later penned a letter that suggested William was the “brains” behind the theorem, the letter’s 1991 publication in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences fails to explain why she was rarely credited for the theorem from 1928 through the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, the erasure of her contributions, as well as those of other women scholars, has a “ripple effect.”  I seriously doubt that my professors fail to credit Dorothy Swaine Thomas intentionally; rather, they failed to teach me about her because they never learned about her.  Her invisibility is further spread through introductory textbooks.  If it were not for accidentally “discovering” her, I, too, would likely perpetuate her erasure by overlooking her work in my classes.

A(nother) Call For The Sociology of Sociology

As I have written in earlier posts, sociology, and academia in general, is not immune to the biases of society.  But, what may have been intentional exclusion or erasure nearly a century ago (and, to be honest, even more recently) continues on as innocent ignorance.  This is inexcusable.

The erasure of “people like us” does marginalized scholars a disservice because it paints the picture that we have had little role in shaping academia and knowledge.  And, many of the names and legacies that have survived efforts to exclude and erase, as well as innocent “amnesia,” are often stripped of personhood.  For example, some sociological “greats” like W. E. B. DuBois are stripped of their activism and radical politics, characterized, instead, as cooperative, mainstream (apolitical) sociologists.

But, for all of academia, this supposed “amnesia” seems like a detriment to the advancement of knowledge.  Whole scholarly contributions have either been outright blocked, or eventually lost over time.  Who knows whether we are “reinventing the wheel,” missing crucial insights that had once been put forth and lost?

Again, I call for a sociology of sociology, where we turn our critical lens back on our field.  In many ways, exclusion and discrimination are still at play.  And, there are whole careers and specific studies, theories, and insights that are lost in the past.  Besides liberating these scholars and their work from academic “amnesia,” it may also be worth revisiting other “classic” work through a contemporary lens.  (Full disclosure, I remain wary of giving full credit to handful of dead middle-class white men to pen the theories of society.)

To be fair, this line of work would still be a bit too “navel-gazey” for my tastes to pursue as my primary research.  But, I remain intrigued enough to do my own homework in my free time (and, obviously blog about it).  If anything, I would like to know the herstory of the field I love, with specific attention to the stories that are not told, and to those scholars who are not celebrated as the “fathers of sociology.”

I certainly encourage others to reflect more on the past (and present) of our discipline and the academy as a whole.  At a minimum, I hope others take from this inspiration to credit the other Thomas (i.e., Dorothy Swaine) for the Thomas theorem.

Race Matters, Even In Academia

Let’s start with something that is of critical importance, but very embarrassing to admit: I was surprised that the realities of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism exist in academia, just like the rest of society.  I can recall instances of prejudice, discrimination, invisibility, tokenism, invalidation, and so forth within the walls of the ivory tower that are very similar to those I experience outside of it.  Just as higher education as an institution is not immune to prejudice and discrimination, neither are academics.  The extremely embarrassing part of this self-disclosure is that I continue to be surprised with every new encounter of stereotypes, hostility, denials of opportunity, and so forth.  I suppose my blessing is also my curse: seeing the potential for good, kindness, and justice in all people.

Racial And Ethnic Differences Among Sociology PhD Students

I find comfort and discomfort in the findings of a recent survey of 685 doctoral students in sociology graduate programs in the United States.  This survey was presented at August’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, entitled, ““Diversity and Its Discontents”:  A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  (Download the Powerpoint presentation online here.)  A few interesting findings from the survey:

  • Top 3 reasons students go to Grad School: [African Americans] 1) Contribute to advancement of minorities, 2) grow intellectually, 3) improve occupational mobility; [Latina/os] 1) Grow intellectually, 2) contribute to my community, 3) contribute to advancement of minorities; [whites] 1) Grow intellectually, 2) improve occupational mobility, 3) make a contribute to the field.  Notice overlap in wanting to grow intellectually, but contributing to social change and social justice is top 3 priority for whites to attend graduate school.
  • White students are least likely of the three groups to consider the racial and ethnic diversity of a PhD program when considering where to go for graduate school.
  • Black and Latina/o students are more likely than whites to note an advantage for white students in their department; whites are more likely than students of color to perceive an advantage for people of color in their department.  (It’s striking that even among sociologists, some whites believe that there are advantages afforded to people of color!)  These two sets of perceived inequality predict less satisfaction with the climate among fellow PhD students.

I want to emphasize that first finding again.  Here’s the slide that demonstrates the rank ordering of the top three reasons why white, Black, and Latina/o people decide to go to graduate school (in sociology):

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Though the placement differs slightly, all three racial and ethnic groups note wanting to grow intellectually.  That makes sense.  It would seem strange to embark on an intense educational training for 4-8 years (sometimes more) simply to advance one’s job prospects.  But, that is a reasonable priority, hence whites’ and Blacks’ mention of improving their occupational mobility (e.g., getting a better job).  But, what stands out most to me is that the #1 reason for Blacks to pursue a PhD in sociology is to contribute to the advancement of racial minorities, and reasons #2 and #3 for Latina/os are similar (minority advancement AND to contribute to one’s community).  Instead of a similar or parallel reason, a desire to contribute to the field of sociology ranks as the #3 reason for whites to attend graduate school.

Why Does It Matter?

Let me say up front that the reasons offered are all important and noble.  I don’t mean to suggest that any of these reasons are bad or selfish.  But, what I wish to illuminate is that whites in sociology and, arguably even more so in other disciplines, may not list as a top career priority to contribute to the advancement of racial and ethnic minorities.  This means that Black and Latina/o sociologists work with, and are even trained by, white sociologists who may not be interested in the same goals of racial equality and social justice more broadly.

I speak from personal experience that it is often frustrating to have what feels like “shop talk” about race and racism with a white sociologist, while each conversation about race for me feels like the difference between life or death.  I am sometimes confused why I feel such urgency to convey that race shapes almost every aspect of our lives and literally structures society, yet a white colleague I may be speaking with seems light in mood, with the ability to easily change the subject to who won American Idol.  Unfortunately, it often leaves me and other academics of color questioning whether we are in the right field to work for social justice and equality.  (Of course, it is the right field for me, given my interest in research, teaching, and serving both the academic and broader communities; but, I had not anticipated as a naive undergrad that I would have to convince fellow academics to care that inequality persists.)

A Caveat

You don’t have to worry that I’ve prepared a case for radically altering the academy, or restructuring graduate training programs.  I realize that this is only one survey, and it may not accurately reflect the experiences of every student of every race and ethnicity in every academic program.  But, it does offer a sense that I am not alone in my experiences as a PhD student of color.  One further concern that causes me to hesitate in my read of this survey is that other dimensions of difference and inequality — namely gender, social class, and sexual orientation — were not considered.  As a group whites may not rank a commitment to racial justice as a top reason for pursuing a PhD in sociology.  However, we don’t know how many white women, working-class whites, and white lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have pursued or are pursuing PhDs in sociology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, LGBT/sexuality studies, and so forth with the intention of fighting sexism, heterosexism, and classism in society.

There Is (White Men’s) Truth, And Then There Are Opinions

Recently, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook about the media reaction about a comment journalist Dan Rather made referencing selling watermelons in a conversation about President Barack Obama.  The essay, penned by Dan Rather himself, does not have a title that clearly indicates anything about race or racism, so I barely even noticed the link.  But, it was the response of one of his friends that caught my attention: “jeez louise… some people are just hell-bent on getting offended. they need a punch in the face.”  This, of course, warranted my immediate attention, so I checked the link out.  Dan Rather came to his defense to clarify that his comment was not meant to be about race, and, the common defensive response when white people are accused of being racist, to acknowledge how anti-racist he is.

A Response

As in do in many moments like these, I felt the need to give the anti-racist sociologist’s critique that redirects attention from the “overly-sensitive” individuals to the history and prevalence of institutional racism:

Think about the (racist) society that produces the potential for such sensitivity and misunderstanding. Instances like this can’t simply be blamed on overly-sensitive people, because that would assume that they are sensitive about an issue beyond what is appropriate or expected. We don’t live in a post-racial society, nor one that is free of prejudice and discrimination. So, it makes sense that people in minority groups are wary of the dominant group, ever vigilant. (Think about constantly looking over your shoulder when walking alone at night as a gay man, fearing a “gay-bashing.”) I suspect that no one *wants* to be offended because it is a toxic feeling and it keeps groups distant and distrustful. So long as our society wreaks of racist prejudice and discrimination, things like this with Dan Rather will continue to happen – face it, racism hurts everyone.

Making A Case

I gave this response, a long, accessible, plea, in place of what I really wanted to say: “c’mon, you should know better.”  But, realistically, as I am sure many can agree, the strength of ignorance and prejudice disallows for one to simply say “you should know better” when someone like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refers to Black people as “Negroes”, or when singer John Mayer jokes about having a racist penis because he does not find Black women physically and sexually attractive.  If I were to call someone out for making an ignorant or prejudiced comment, the onus is placed on me to explain why – and this quickly becomes a matter of pleading my case.  Many anti-racist activists, scholars, journalists, and bloggers have been trying to make a case for why the United States is far from being classified as “post-racial.”

Who’s Truth? Who’s Version Of Reality?

In having to make a case, someone else is to be the judge, primarily the dominant group.  That is, in arguing that racism continues to plague our nation, in the form of inequality, exclusion, disparities, and exploitation, is done in hopes that we will be believed, that our perspective will be validated – and whites are the ones to decide whether they buy it.  This means then, that there is a way of seeing the world that is regularly privileged over other ways of seeing the world, and that way is the way that dominant groups view the world.  When people of color highlight racial prejudice and discrimination, they can be easily dismissed as overly-sensitive, even exaggerating their claims.  When women raise doubts or concerns about an issue, they can be dismissed as being on their period, suffering from PMS.  This leaves in tact white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, US-born men’s perspective as truth, to which other perspectives must be evaluated as acceptable enough to compliment the existing version of truth.

A Note On Political Correctness And “Hypersensitivity”

As one blogger noted at sexgenderbody, the norm of political correctness is flawed, encouraging people to avoid saying things that could be perceived as prejudice, but failing to critique the prejudice itself.  The intent underlying political correctness is misguided, in that it seeks to avoid offending members of marginalized groups for fear of their reaction.  There is little critique of why minority groups may take offense.  As I suggested in my response to the facebook link of Dan Rather’s defense, I cannot imagine that there are people who actively search for implicit or explicit prejudice – mainly because you don’t have to search to instantly find several examples.  For most, there is a response of offense and guardedness because of the history of prejudice and discrimination of the US.

Aside from Klansman and skin-heads, bigots do not clearly mark themselves from others, so one must constantly be wary of members of the dominant group to defend themselves.  Potential racists do not inform you in advance that they may turn on you when jobs dry up.  Potential rapists do not identify themselves before preying on their victims.  There is no special pin that individuals wear to let you know they will gay-bash you when you walk home alone at night.  At least, in the past, one could have a good chance of guessing someone is a potential threat just by virtue of belonging to the dominant group.  But, today, the numerous forms of oppression have taken on subtler forms, so those who intentionally discriminate must find ways to do so within the confines of the law and, of more concern, is that dominant group members may harbor prejudice and discriminate against minority groups unknowingly while otherwise well-intentioned.  (This is why many respond with confusion and anger when accused of being prejudiced.)

It’s Time To Move Beyond Playing Racist Hot-Potato

We have, in fact, made great strides in this country in terms of gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual equality.  So, while labels like “racist” used to be worn as a badge of honor, they have quite the opposite effect today.  But, my fear is that the game of “whose a racist?” shuts down real, meaningful conversations about inequality, prejudice, and discrimination.  Even before being called a bigot, many decide just to stay silent all together to avoid the embarrassing label.  Rather than having frank conversations in which we call can articulate our views and understanding of the world, even if misguided or prejudiced, in which we could find out if our views are misguided and prejudiced, we just do not talk.

I will state this plainly: we are all implicated in racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, nationalism, religious intolerance, classism, and so forth – no matter our privileged or disadvantaged status.  There, I said it.  Now, let’s move forward.  If we’re all racist, then the conversation does not cease to play the racist hot-potato game.  Further, it is time that we think like sociologists and implicate society as a part of the problem.  All of the inequality and discrimination we see is not solely at the hands of a few proud bigots, rather they are sustained by social institutions (e.g., religion, education), social interactions among individuals, socialization (i.e., family, schooling), and culture.  In our now frank discussions of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality, we must talk about what we can do as individuals and as groups to change our own minds and practices, institutions, and society at large.

Oh No, Where Have All Of The College Men Gone?!?

I doubt, or at least hope that I should doubt, that anyone is unaware that the United States has a history of excluding women and people of color from important institutions that offer opportunities toward a better quality of life.  To be more specific, we used to have explicit laws and policies that barred women and racial and ethnic minorities from the labor market, institutions of higher education, and the military, just to name a few.  We can celebrate the social progress that has been made with respect to race, ethnicity, and gender (especially now during Black History Month and next month, Women’s History Month) and really jump for joy when we start to see true equality.  One victory has been an equal representation of women in institutions of higher education.  But, now that women are starting to enroll and graduate in higher numbers than men, some people are starting to worry, like New York Times’s Alex Williams:

“North Carolina, with a student body that is nearly 60 percent female, is just one of many large universities that at times feel eerily like women’s colleges. Women have represented about 57 percent of enrollments at American colleges since at least 2000, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education. Researchers there cite several reasons: women tend to have higher grades; men tend to drop out in disproportionate numbers; and female enrollment skews higher among older students, low-income students, and black and Hispanic students.

In terms of academic advancement, this is hardly the worst news for women — hoist a mug for female achievement. And certainly, women are primarily in college not because they are looking for men, but because they want to earn a degree.

But surrounded by so many other successful women, they often find it harder than expected to find a date on a Friday night.”

Whereas college degrees offer graduates stronger chances of landing a good job, and whereas women are starting to outnumber men in terms of college enrollment and degrees, the status quo may be at risk, so there is cause for panic!  Right?  (Please note my sarcasm.)  But, rather than celebrating the reality that women are outperforming men academically, Williams devotes an article to the “social ramifications” of this “gender-imbalance.”  The article tumbles from concerns about too few available men to date (because, obviously finding a future husband is every woman’s number one priority, including queer women) into concerns about men gaining greater power over women.

A number of issues must be raised.  First, can we stop stereotyping women as relationship-crazy?  Similar to research that has been done on the “hooking up” phenomenon, which includes the work of sociologists Kathleen Bogle, who is quoted in Williams’s article, scholars have found that women feel pressured to be in a relationship by men, and are perceived as always wanting to be in a relationship, but many women would rather avoid very time- and emotion-consuming relationships while in college.  College no longer represents a chance to get one’s “MRS degree” – just look at the longer and longer delay of first marriage among today’s young adults.  So, yes, some women have opted for “hooking up” instead of time-consuming relationships, but, sadly, “hooking up” tends to happen on men’s terms (they initiate, it happens in their dorms) and focus primarily on men’s pleasure (given the “orgasm gap” noted in research on “hooking up”).

Second, what the hell is wrong with women’s colleges?  “North Carolina, with a student body that is nearly 60 percent female, is just one of many large universities that at times feel eerily like women’s colleges.”  Williams makes places like Hood College, Smith College, Spelman College sound like creepy graveyards you don’t want to be caught in at night.  (What’s scarier for the average hetero-woman than being surrounded by hairy, lesbian, feminazis that are too butch and radical to fit in at a co-ed college?)  Many of the schools Williams mentions are somewhere between 51% and 60% female.  I have a feeling the difference between 50-50 and 55-45 is hardly noticeable at bigger schools.  Further, why is there no criticism of men-only colleges or colleges that are majority-men (but that claim to be inclusive)?

Third, I disagree with the notion that men at “gender-imbalanced” colleges have gained power over women.  Whether there is one woman or 99% of students are women, men are still the dominant group in our patriarchal society.  Sex, dating, and relationships still reflect men’s greater power in society.  And, colleges and universities do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by the history of sexism and exclusion in the United States, and by the sexist society in which they exist today.  Many disciplines in which women are the minority, majority, or equally represented continue to be male-dominated, or may have a long history that privileges men’s contributions over women’s.

Finally, I am concerned that there is no critique of the thinly-veiled attempts to counter the tip in enrollment and graduation toward women with “affirmative action for men.”  I have ranted before about these initiatives to change admissions standards in men’s favor.  One oft-cited reason people oppose affirmative action to equalize opportunity and access for women and people of color is an opposition to lowering standards for these disadvantaged groups, yet there seems to be little concern to do so now for the sake of men.  If women are outperforming men, great!  This doesn’t mean that we’ve suddenly achieved gender equality across the board, and are now surpassing it toward female privilege and male disadvantage.  Though we may be seeing parity in education in general, we don’t see it across every major (men are overrepresented in the natural and life sciences, yet women are overrepresented in the social sciences), and we certainly continue to see inequality in other arenas (e.g., 75 cents earned to every man’s dollar?).  No one has asked what these implicit “affirmative action for men” will mean for explicit affirmative action policies followed by universities.

I feel no shame in saying “so what?”  You see a tiny bit of challenge to male privilege and there are reactions that seem more appropriate for the end of the world.  A little secret for you… we’ll never achieve equality while majority/dominant groups retain their privileges.  You can’t have your privileges and equality, too.  Oh gosh, I’m not looking forward to hearing waves of rants about our “post-gender” society.