On “Coming Out” As Bipolar In Academia

Seth Selfie

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

Coming Out vs. coming out

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

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

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

“coming out” As Bipolar

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

For Us, Self-Promotion Is Community Promotion

Photo source: Aaron Gilson (https://flic.kr/p/cPbD2C)

Photo source: Aaron Gilson (https://flic.kr/p/cPbD2C)

This post is not about “leaning in.”  Or, maybe it is.  I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book yet.  But, I have skimmed some critiques of her work, namely that asking women to “lean in” more to advance within sexist institutions does too little to change those institutions.  And, when women lean in, they may be smacked in the face (literally and/or figuratively).  But, this post isn’t about “leaning in,” I think.

Self-promotion is on my mind again.  A year ago or so, to my surprise today, I shared the following wisdom on Twitter:

Self-promotion is just as much promotion of my communities as promotion of myself.

Unfortunately, this gem along with other possible gems I’ve shared on Twitter were lost to subsequent self-doubt.  I buckled under the nasty criticism of anonymous trolls who, at the time, seemed to read and critique my every tweet and blog post.  I let cowardly colleagues bully me into silence, temporarily at least.  In the process of recovering my voice, I have had to face the reality that speaking out (or not) is just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong.

Impostor Syndrome: A Symptom Of Oppression

I will grant that self-doubt is not unique to scholars from oppressed communities.  But, that is where the commonalities with our privileged colleagues end.  For working-class scholars, scholars of color, women scholars, LGBTQ scholars, scholars with disabilities, immigrant and international scholars, and fat scholars, our personal bouts with impostor syndrome — feeling as though we do not belong and/or are not as good as our privileged colleagues — are a symptom of systems of oppression that operate through academia, just as they do through every other important social institution.  We cannot help but feel as though we do not belong because academia was not built by us or for us.  We had to fight to be let in the front door (and still do), and continue to fight to be included fully; when we do get in, subtle and explicit efforts are made to undermine us at every corner.

I encourage my fellow marginalized scholars to make this realization a crucial part of their professional consciousnesses.  I imagine that there are countless scholars who suffer(ed) from impostor syndrome all throughout their careers because more and more experience is not enough, more publications are not enough, tenure and promotion are not enough, and so on… to eradicate institutionalized bias against marginalized people.  It is not that we are more likely to experience self-doubt than our privileged counterparts because we are not as experienced or productive as they are.  We doubt ourselves because academia, and society in general, doubts us.  Effective treatments for impostor syndrome, then, must entail raising one’s consciousness and, ideally, changing institutional norms and policies.

I cannot speak to any overlap with Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy.  But, I know for certain that my new found consciousness, including linking the promotion of my own work with the promotion of my communities, has been inspired by the good Lorde — Audre Lorde, that is.  Nearly on a daily basis, I am reminded of the undeniable truth that silence has never, and will never, protect me. Further, “[w]hen we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”  And, “[w]hen I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”  By self-promoting and speaking out, I am advancing my communities; thus, with so much more at stake than my personal well-being, my temporary discomfort is unimportant.  (This is a point I attempted to make on U Maryland’s Parren Mitchell Symposium panel on intellectual activism [see 00:56:30].)

Self-Promotion And Community-Promotion

Beyond recognizing self-doubt, I sometimes force myself to accept invitations (if my schedule allows) as a harsh means to overcome it.  For example, in March, I served on a public sociology panel at the Southern Sociological Society annual meeting alongside Drs. Barbara Risman (current SSS president), Philip Cohen, and Neal Caren.  I was the lone tenure-track professor, liberal arts faculty member, and the only queer person and person of color.  The sole reason I accepted the invitation was that I forced myself to do it, ignoring the internal voice that pointed out that these are successful and visible experts while I just finished Year 2 on the tenure-track.

Why push myself even in the face of intense self-doubt?  There are several reasons.  I push myself because the impostor syndrome that I experience is the same symptom of oppression that my fellow marginalized scholars experience.  I push myself because every time I decline an invitation, there is a good chance another person like me may not be invited in my place or also will not accept the invitation; when this occurs repeatedly, we are complicit in the systematic exclusion of the voices of marginalized scholars.  I push myself because I cannot afford to turn down the few opportunities that come my way in light of the infinite opportunities that are denied to me because of my identities and politics.  I push myself because this job will never be easy; academia is a difficult profession by design, and can be deadly for marginalized scholars.

When marginalized scholars self-promote and speak out, we make space for other marginalized scholars, or at least inspire bravery in others.  I simply cannot imagine where I would be if W. E. B. Du Bois, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, and the editors of Presumed Incompetent had not dared to speak out and promote their own work and perspectives!  I doubt sexualities would be the theme of the upcoming annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) if sexuality scholars (including ASA President Paula England) were too afraid to promote their work as a legitimate and important area of study.  Each time I promote my work and voice, I hope that I, too, am having the same positive influence on others.

Allowing forcing ourselves to be heard and visible in academic spaces benefits our privileged colleagues, as well.  By daring to promote our work and to speak up, we contribute to disrupting our own systemic exclusion.  We challenge the perspective and scholarship of white heterosexual middle-class “normal weight” cis men without disabilities as the default or standard.  We force our colleagues to take us seriously and see the importance of our work and our perspectives.  Hopefully, we also influence our privileged colleagues to prioritize our voices when citing scholarship, choosing panels and committees, and assigning readings in their courses.  To put it bluntly, the exclusion and invisibility of unique perspectives is bad for science and bad for higher education; in this way, we all benefit from diversity and full inclusion.

Concluding Thoughts

Tasking individual marginalized scholars with self-promoting to help advance their own communities is burdensome, I realize.  If you’re already feeling self-doubt, and the twinge of guilt for turning requests down, and the stress of being overburdened with service demands, knowing that you are either advancing your communities or letting them down is simply more pressure.  But, thinking of the positive flip side — that the promotion of your scholarship and perspective helps to promote your communities — may help to alleviate the self-doubt.

The reality is, it often is so much more than you.  When you are excluded, it is because most or all of the members of your communities are excluded.  When scholars who dare to speak up are attacked, they are simply targets for a larger assault on liberalism, higher education, anti-racism, feminism, and other causes that promote equal rights and/or social justice.   The self-doubt is, at least in part, an internalization of the bias against marginalized scholars in academia and society generally.  We ease the work of defenders of the status quo in academia when we are complicit in our own silence, invisibility, and exclusion.

We owe it to ourselves and our communities to be heard, and seen, and cited, and promoted, and included, and engaged.

Who Let An Activist In Here?!

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

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

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

Who Let An Activist In Here?

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

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

Activist Gone Academic

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

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

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

And, Then Grad School…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

Reflections On Departmental Division Of Labor By Psyc Girl

psyc girlPsyc Girl is an Assistant Professor in Agricultural Psychology, her pseudonymous niche.  She regularly blogs at stressful times for psycgirl on her journey (the good, the bad, and the frustrating) toward tenure.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@PsycGrrrl)!

Below, Psyc Girl reflects on the lack of even distribution of service in the department, and the consequences of this imbalance for her and her colleagues’ careers.

psyc girl’s cycle of collectivist angst about unbalanced workloads

Members of academic departments can be roughly divided, I believe, into two groups: Those who one would define as collectivists, and those who one would define as individualists. Collectivists value interdependence, and are likely to see the well-being of their in-group as important. Sometimes the group is even more important than their own individual needs. Individualists, in contrast, are more likely to value their own well-being, achievements, etc.

It seems to me that the collectivists in academic departments are those who are more likely to engage in administrative work, volunteer to do things even if those tasks are not reflected in their official designated workload, and to help someone else even if it means putting their own needs on the back burner temporarily.  The individualists are more likely to decline tasks that are not reflected in their official workload, prioritize their publications and items that will translate into lines on CVs, and to put their own needs ahead of the group or department.

Anecdotally, the collectivists around me seem less likely to have the publication records (and thus the salary) of individualists. It seems that the characteristics possessed by individualists are those more likely to lead to “success,” as it is often defined in academia. (Anecdotally, again, it also seems that the collectivists vs. individualists seem to reflect the women vs. men in many departments, but this is not a post about gender.)

I’m a collectivist. The individualists around me have caused me a great deal of grief during my journey on the tenure track so far. I’ve done tasks that have not been reflected in my workload, taken on administrative work that needed to be completed (and completed well) by someone, and my intensive mentorship style with my students probably slows down my publication record even further. Taking on many of these tasks frees up the time for my individualistic colleagues to focus even more on their own research.

My coping strategy with this “unfairness” has oscillated between two options. One is to say “Fine then. I’ll check out and focus on my research, too.” I see a lot of people around me taking the “fine then” approach. The problem with this approach, however, is that I don’t find it rewarding. I feel guilty. Tasks don’t get done in the manner they should. I’m not happy. I usually respond to these feelings with my second coping option – throwing myself into the work, telling myself no one will ever change, and eventually burning myself out. This makes me feel incredibly powerless. (And then I start again with “fine then.”) I end up locked in this vicious cycle of engagement, burnout, cynicism, disengagement, and guilt. In the meantime, my individualist colleagues have probably been working away, with no guilt whatsoever. Not only are the collectivists dealing with less time to dedicate to their research, via their personality style, they also have to work under the psychological cloud of this cycle – which can be exhausting. It exacerbates my inability to focus and produce research.

Recently, I needed some help with something, professionally. On paper, it wasn’t something that should have received any help from those around me. But, to my surprise, I received multiple offers of assistance. Helping me didn’t garner any lines on my colleagues’ CVs. They helped me because they respect me, they value me, and because several of them are my friends. I was surprised to discover, from this experience, that I do have power: I have social capital.

As an untenured junior faculty member, it is easy to feel powerless. It is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that almost every other member of my department will vote on my tenure application. I feel particularly powerless when compared to my individualistic colleagues. In fact, I often feel like a fool working away on administrative tasks while they publish twice as many papers as I do each year. As a result, their salary creeps up more quickly than mine and by the end of our careers there might be a large gap between our incomes.

Suggestions For Change

Lately, however, I’m doing okay – I’ve got the collectivist cycle of negativity on hold. I can’t guarantee these tactics will work for other scholars, or that they are all even possible in other contexts. Below are the strategies that have worked for me.

At The Individual and Interpersonal Level

  1. Acceptance (Part I): Yes, the system is set up to reward the individualists amongst us, and yes that system should be changed. But it isn’t something that I’m going to be able to change by myself, and it isn’t something I’m going to change this week.
  2. We need to be having conversations about the broader impact of this tendency. Who is doing the most administrative work? Who is “taking advantage” of the system? Are women doing less of the work that shows up on CVs and more of the grunt work? Minorities? And how are we going to change that, over time?
  3. Decide what is important to YOU.  It’s hard to know how to get from point A to point B if you have no idea where you want to go. What do you need to do, to focus on, to work on, in order to close your office door at the end of each day and say “I did a good job, today.” Maybe that doesn’t match with what your individualist colleagues find important. That’s okay. It’s also okay for this to include tenure requirements!  Apply this phrase as needed: “I would love to do more of [task X]. I really need to focus on getting tenure right now. After that, I’m all yours!”
  4. Acceptance (Part II): When I evaluated what is important to me I realized that being liked, respected, and having friends at work are all more important to me than extra lines on my CV or having the same salary line as my superstar colleagues. In my department those people are quite isolated. Being isolated would make me miserable!
  5. Regularly evaluate what you are working on – what can be dropped? What are you doing out of your “should” beliefs? What is not actually required of you? One of my colleagues is infamous for taking on no-recognition tasks that probably don’t really need to be done.
  6. Recognize that when you take on a task that shouldn’t fall completely on your shoulders, you are choosing to do so, and you are preventing one of your colleagues from doing that task. This further rewards the individualists for not picking up those tasks!
  7. Set boundaries. My individualist colleagues do it, and I started doing it too. I’m no longer giving away my writing time for meetings, I’m no longer overloading myself. I’m doing what I need to do for tenure, and what I need to do to accomplish #3.
  8. Last, recognize that there are other ways to get power besides publishing a ton of research. My power comes from my social capital – but as someone raised in the “publish or perish” culture of academia, it never occurred to me that this was helpful. Find your own place of power, and use it – don’t assume the only way to have power is by publishing.

At Department Level

We also need to be having conversations within our departments, where the cycle is unfolding. There are respectful, tactful, and powerful ways to say “I think I’m doing a disproportionate amount of work here.” Here are some possible outcomes of talking:

  1. Your colleagues might not know what you’re up to. Sometimes the individualists say “I didn’t realize you were doing all that. We should definitely share it more.” Don’t be resentful in silence, assuming your colleagues even know what you do, let alone that they are actively taking advantage of you.
  2. This cycle might not actually be occurring (or is not as bad as you think). After having conversations about workload in our program, we realized we’re more balanced than we thought.
  3. At the department level, years of this conversation have led to us considering “non-traditional” accomplishments as reasons for a raise. In fact, we now have a policy dividing our raises up into those for research and those for teaching, and we attempt to hit the same ratio of these each year.
  4. You can get some backup.  In my program all untenured faculty members get an annual review meeting with our department chair. That’s my spot to say “I’m doing X and Y, and I don’t think I should be yet. What do you think?” My department heads over the years have actually been quite supportive of balancing obligations to the department and individual progress.

Make 2014 The Year Of Self-Promotion!

Sonya’s latest blog post on self-censorship has stuck with me since.  Specifically, she pondered why she fails to include her own published research as assigned readings in her classes — classes that overlap with her research!  I already know why I do not include my (admittedly) few articles.  I do not want to appear arrogant before my students.  And, I would like to think that the readings, which often reflect others’ voices in the form of narrative or autobiography, provide other perspectives that complement that which I provide in lecture.

But, Sonya’s post also forced me to acknowledge that I fail to include my own expertise because I do not feel like an expert.  Sure, exclusively assigning your book as the class’s text might seem suspect.  But, as Sonya pointed out, our students may be wondering what kind of research we do.  And, more importantly, besides preparing lectures, what do we really know and think about the topic?  (I can vouch for students wanting to know — but what do you think?)

On Self-Promotion For Marginalized Scholars

I will let you in on a little secret.  Self-promotion is a required skill in academia — and, other professions, too!  One’s status and individual success serve as two primary measure of one’s professional worth.  If, like me, you have made peace with not participating in the status game, you should probably also make peace with being dismissed by those who do.  Unfortunately, it seems impossible to actually survive professionally, let alone excel, without the occasional self-promotion.  And, a scholar’s own efforts to promote her work (and herself) influence the efforts of her network to promote her.  (Are we ready to stop pretending academia is a meritocratic profession?)

What is more unfortunate, though, is that many marginalized scholars struggle to self-promote.  At the starting point, many of us are simply trying to overcome impostor syndrome — the sense that we are not good enough, that we do not belong, that we will be discovered as frauds and forced to leave.  So, a rather low-level of self-promotion would just get us to the point of feeling like we even belong in the first place.  The other constraint, in my mind, is a fear of being dismissed as arrogant.  Women, for example, face gendered expectations regarding professional (and really any) interactions that place a low threshold for too much self-promotion — we all know what women are called when they “forget their place.”

Since I cannot escape my mathematic roots (science and technology high school program to almost majoring in math in college), something like the following hypothetical graph comes to mind:

Self-Promotion

Above, I have envisioned a range of visibility in academia — one’s department, university, subfield, and/or discipline — from “who the hell is that?” to “everyone knows that pompous asshole.”  (Note, again, these are make-believe data!)  Accounting for internal factors (self-doubt, impostor syndrome, alienation) and external factors (prejudice and discrimination), I have placed marginalized scholars at a negligible level of self-promotion in the negative.  You know — feeling and actually being invisible.  Even at low, medium, and high levels of self-promotion, I suggest that these factors still create a disparity between privileged and marginalized scholars.  And, you can probably switch out visibility for any other valued attribute or desired outcome in academia (e.g., authority, respect, status).

My point here is to emphasize that we (marginalized scholars) cannot afford not to self-promote.  But, many of us experience fear in doing so because we worry about being labeled arrogant — maybe even “uppity.”  So, we uncomfortably bob between invisibility and just enough visibility to survive in our profession.  We fear just being present in academia is already asking a lot, so we avoid rocking the boat politically or through critical scholarship.  Maybe we will feel safer and more confident once we get that job, tenure, that promotion, that publication, that… whatever validation from our profession.  But, the thing is, it takes self-promotion to achieve them!

In 2014, Promote Yourself

Sure, as I write this, I feel the self-doubt creeping in.  I want to preface this by noting my lack of experience, my young age, maybe even my naivete.  No.  If this is a crock of shit, it is a crock you sought out on this blog, having read all the way to this point in the post.  I am not going to apologize for encouraging my colleagues to be better in their jobs, to feel better in their jobs.  You’re welcome.  But, I digress.

I like to set resolutions for the new year.  And, every three years, I set 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals, to which I return to see what I have accomplished.  One of them for 2014 (and beyond) will be to become more comfortable with self-promotion.

Here are the specifics I have in mind:

  • Set as a rule the inclusion of one of my publications as an assigned reading in my courses — if it is relevant, if it is an exemplar article or at least a useful example on a topic.  I set as my arrogance threshold any effort to alter the overall course organization or content just to include my own research.  That is, I refuse to start with my research as the foundation of a course, and then build around it.  Rather, if there is space, I will own that my expertise is relevant.  Letting self-doubt and impostor syndrome win is both bad science and bad pedagogy!
  • Stop second-guessing why I receive invitations to speak at conferences, on panels, to give talks, to submit articles, etc.  As status-driven as our profession is, I am lucky to receive these acknowledgements of my good work.  I should think about the number of invitations I don’t receive because others have dismissed me because of my personal identities, or presumed inexperience, or outspokenness, or the subject of my research, or my job at a liberal arts university.
  • Stop living in fear for the work that I do (including this blog!).  Clearly, I am doing something right (i.e., I still have a job!).  And, I pride myself on being just as safe, reflective, and cautious as I am provocative and outspoken.  I am hardly reckless (here, rejecting conformity, silence, and assimilation as “safe” approaches).  So, it is time to live up to my declaration to work toward tenure without losing my soul.
  • Continue to promote the excellent work of my colleagues and fellow marginalized scholars.  Sure, a part of me does this because I hope for that favor in kind.  Selfishness aside, I advocate for making academia a supportive community; in my mind, this includes regularly supporting and promoting others.  While individualism and competition may effectively motivate scholars, it also seems to hinder knowledge production because scholars are not building together.  So, specifically, I will continue to cite and promote the great work of people in my network — publications, pedagogical tools, blog posts, and other intellectual efforts.
  • Celebrate my accomplishments, big and small.  As I noted in an earlier blog post, one factor that has been driving my impostor syndrome in 2013 is failing to properly celebrate all that I had accomplished.  I finished my dissertation, earned my PhD, started my tenure-track job, and sent out a few articles for review (including one which was conditionally accepted).  Besides a dinner with my family after graduation in May, I never took the time to celebrate.  How can you feel accomplished, successful, efficacious, and powerful if you fail to reflect on what you have achieved?  So, no more of that.  I allowed the taken-for-grantedness of academic milestones push me past celebrating every little victory, like surviving the semester, submitting a paper for review, receiving an invitation to speak.  I can scale back on the celebrations when they become too frequent!

So, who’s with me for a little self-promotion in 2014?

An Update On My 7-Year Experiment

Tenure

As my tenure-track job officially started in August, I publicly declared that I refused to stop living a full, meaningful, fun, and healthy life just for the hope of job security in seven years.  Following Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life,” I decided to experiment with a worry-free pursuit of tenure — but, without waiting until I have secured tenure to speak about it publicly:

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.

I just finished my first semester last week.  So, how is it going thus far?  Well — I am alive, still employed, and have no desire to look for a new job or move to a new place or leave academia.  But, you know me — I have to reflect more extensively to paint an accurate picture.

Teaching

I taught two classes this semester: one brand new prep (research methods) and a semi-new prep (adding more gender to my sexual diversity prep for gender and sexualities).  Moving from one class, three years ago as a graduate student instructor, to two classes was a bit of an adjustment.  Methods seemed to be first thing in the morning, with prep, grading, emails, and students dropping by office hours throughout the rest of the week.  The course is not the most intellectually challenging, but demands a lot of work on the students’ part (and, as a result, on mine) to effectively teach methods.  At times, my once per week, night-time, semi-prepped gender and sexualities class felt like an afterthought.  With a class full of seniors, with few but big assignments, it did not require as much of my attention as the methods course.  In the spring, I will have one new prep — social inequalities — and will teach two sections of methods.  I am sure going from two to three courses will be another bumpy adjustment.

I am still trying to figure the students out intellectually, politically, and in terms of demographics.  Just as I feel I have the student body figured out, my suspicion is disproved or complicated.  The biggest adjustment is to how stretched thin many of the students appear — suffering from a second or third cold, sleep deprivation, and constant worry and anxiety.  On occasion, I have mistaken exhaustion for laziness.

I have received my students’ evaluations.  Overall, I get the impression I am “ok” in most of their eyes (especially in research methods), though some seemed to think very highly of me as an instructor.  So, I have wrapped up the semester feeling good about a generally successful “Round 1,” particularly for my methods course.  I struggled somewhat with this new prep, trying to find the right balance of tradition (i.e, how it was taught it in the past) and my own spin.  Eventually, I realized my appreciation of tradition was actually fear driven by “impostor syndrome.”  What do I know about teaching research methods?  Ironically, I dreaded teaching quantitative methods and statistics for much of the semester (the methods I use in my own research!)  What should I teach?  What aspects am I supposed to teach that I barely understand myself?  Impostor syndrome was turning into feeling genuinely unqualified for the job.  That was the absolute worse feeling in my career thus far.

To my pleasant surprise, these aspects of the course went swimmingly — well enough that my qualifications became undeniably clear to me.  I take from this a reminder to trust my gut (stop beginning with what others have done) and to proudly think outside of the box.  I was explicitly hired for my unique scholarly approach; I just have to remind myself of that on the not-so-perfect teaching days.

Me - Presentation 1

Research

I was warned that few professors actually make progress on their research in their first year on the tenure-track.  You are adjusting to so many things at once.  In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, the one thing that counts the most toward tenure (particularly at research universities) is the one thing with the least external accountability: research.  Teaching will take up every free minute if you let it.  Email and meetings take up the rest.  So, I went into this semester frightened but motivated.

For better and not-so-better, I sent out all three of the empirical chapters of my dissertation, and began extending a smaller review chapter, which I eventually sent out.  By the beginning of the semester, I already had one revise and resubmit (R&R) — a chapter about which my committee felt the most apprehensive in terms of publishing.  Soon after, I had a rejection for my strongest paper from my discipline’s top journal.  I quickly revised it and sent it to the top journal in my subfield.  That paper came back with a very promising R&R, which I turned to to get away from the other, daunting R&R.  Now, it is forthcoming at that journal, scheduled for its next issue!  The third paper was rejected, returned with pages and pages of nit-picky, soul-crushing feedback.  I sent the review paper to a journal outside of my discipline, only to have it handed back with no reviews.  One on-going co-authored paper has finally been sent out for attempt number three, and I hope to submit another soon.

So, here is the tally: 1) one rejection-turned-accepted (in print by March); 2) one daunting R&R, possibly turned co-authored to complement me where I am a bit lacking in expertise; 3) one painful rejection that I have not fully digested; 4) one quick and surprising desk-reject that I need to start from scratch empirically; 5) one co-authored paper under review; 6) one co-authored paper soon to be under review at a top journal.  My goal is to wrap up all of the projects that do not “count” as much toward tenure because they were not started at my current institution.  I hope to have evidence of progress on new projects by my mid-term review (in 2.5 years).

Yes, I sleep.  No, I am not neglecting my teaching.  No, I am not doing shoddy work, or aiming for “easy” journals.  What has helped is sitting my butt down each morning to write for at least 1 hour.  And, obviously, that is not enough to actually do the research, so I often left Thursday and part of Friday to run analyses and create tables.  Soon into the semester, I connected with four other junior faculty — from various disciplines — to create a bi-weekly writing group.  We talk through the challenges we face in our research — empirical, political, disciplinary, interpersonal, and emotional.  We are able to ask the tough questions that we are not as comfortable asking those who decide our fate (i.e., senior colleagues).  Sometimes, others say what you already know, but need someone else to validate you.

Realistically, the kind of productivity that seems feasible during the semester is editing existing papers.  I do not feel I have the time and energy to explore new data or literature.  I did run models — even redid one paper’s results section — but there were no stretches of hours of looking up literature to review.  I suspect the heavy initial lifting for projects will be limited to the summer and other long-ish breaks.  So, I am planning ahead to get moving, particularly on 1-2 new projects, over the summer so that I can shift to writing and revising during the fall and spring.

Service

Well, I am in a fortunate position, for service is not yet expected.  No advising, no committee work, and too new for independent studies and student research.  But, I hear it coming.  Advising starts, for certain, in the next fall semester.  And, I know my name is crossing colleagues’ minds for certain committees.  So, thus far, I have worked on expanding this blog, and attending committee meetings of my choice.  I talked a bit game in August about working with community groups.  But, then the semester started.  When I get home from work on weekdays, and wake up late on the weekends, the extent of the energy I have for service is blogging.  I am embarrassed to admit that.  But, this is one exhausted professor!

Politics

Oh, but do not think for a moment limited service means I am not stirring up some kind of trouble (in a good way!).  Politically speaking, my 7-year experiment has been, well, interesting and eventful.  I certainly made known that I refused to be a scared, silent, invisible, stressed out pre-tenure professor.  But, there were political landmines that I stepped on that I had not anticipated nor intentionally sought out.  I promise you — I did not actively seek out ways to “rock the boat,” though I did not make secret my long-term plan to make a difference on campus and beyond.

Well, there was the negative comment about me on a white supremacists’ blog site.  Then, the religious literature left in my apartment, probably by a maintenance or construction crew member who did not approve of same-gender relationships (i.e., my partner and me).  Then, another unnecessarily mean comment online questioning my credentials and political agenda.  Oh, and the threat to sue me over a blog post unless I edited it.  Sheesh.

For reasons that probably seem obvious to other academics — or, really anyone who has to navigate workplace politics, I did not publicly mention other landmines that went off.  Maybe I alluded to them — I cannot remember at this point.  One was challenging the message that an invited speaker’s talk seemed to send about marginalized groups, and later questioning the funding source.  Whoops!  I found out I was not alone in my concern, but I was the dummy who opened his mouth about it.  That blew over, but now some people’s first impression of me may be the uppity new junior professor.  (Funny, I was asked directly after the talk, “nothing?  you didn’t ask a single question!”  Nope — because you wanted me to.)

But, there have been positive outcomes, as well.  Sonya and I have gotten praise for starting and expanding this blog.  I have heard comments here and there with words like “inspiring.”  (Loving it!)  I have been credited by friends for encouraging them to be braver or more outspoken.  I have not been at my new institution long enough to be a part of big change, but I believe my arrival has been noticed by students, staff, and faculty.  I am brown where there are not a ton of faculty of color.  Queer where few are visibly and vocally out.  Young, outspoken, and accessible.  I suspect word will soon travel — hopefully in a positive way!

Health And Well-Being

But, how am I really doing?  I started off eager but nervous and still recovering from the self-esteem-crushing effect of graduate school.  I finish on a wonderful high note: a forthcoming article in the top journal in my subfield.  And, yes, I am taking on R&R with great intensity — that is, rest and relaxation for you scholars who are not as familiar with the acronym.  I feel a twinge of guilt for taking time off.  But, the guilt is far outweighed by the exhaustion I felt throughout the semester.  In order to stay productive, with now three classes (including one new prep), I cannot return for the spring semester anything short of recovered.

It was a doozy of a semester.  By the close of the first month, the social isolation took its toll.  A new pattern of weeping in my office either Wednesday or Thursday morning emerged.  And, the next day, I would return as my fierce drag queen alter ego Denise (in attitude only, not attire).  But, that stopped being enough.  Already exhausted and weary, I hit little bumps or stepped on landmines that felt like all-out assaults.  And, when a friend passed mid-semester, I was completely worn down.  That period, and the day of the shooting on my mother’s job, were nearly impossible to carry on with “business as usual.”  It has taken a great deal of discipline, resilience, and optimism to push through the exhaustion, disappointment, worry, heartache, and loneliness.

To be fair, I should be giving myself permission to just survive.  No one expects more of a new professor.  But, I expected to do more than survive, which, to be fair, I have!  I started out setting up meetings with colleagues in and outside of my department, my dean and associate dean, and associate provost.  My goal was to make a connection, ask for advice on adjusting and being productive, and share my five-year plan toward tenure.  The first couple of meetings were ok, but more time was spent on the “how to adjust” part than on the “let me show you my plan!” part.  Once the semester really kicked-in, these meetings dissolved into “will you be my friend?”  I resented appearing like the weepy and exhausted new professor — but that’s exactly who I was.  Who can talk about a five-year plan when weeping cut into the time you set aside for writing?  Fortunately, I have connected with supportive and understanding people around campus this way.

Me - Side BW

Looking Ahead

Semester One, done.  And, I would say I am in pretty good shape for the conclusion of my first semester and start of my second.  I go into Semester Two continuing to do what worked: take evenings and weekends off; do yoga in the morning; write at least 60 minutes first thing in the morning at work; keep meeting with my writing group; take regular lunch breaks; and, accept that the first year is primarily about adjusting surviving.  I return knowing to make more of an effort to connect with my colleagues (just being visible is not enough), and that there is no such thing as being apolitical.  I suppose the biggest lesson of all is that I am still learning and growing as a scholar (and that is a good, and expected, thing).

So, where does the 7-year experiment stand?  I am certainly aware that my refusal to be quiet and politically inert comes at a time where job security is threatened, political action is punished, radical ideas and people are attacked, and free speech is undermined.  It almost feels as though I am finding solid ground just as chaos ensues around me.

To my pleasant surprise, I have taken a position at an institution that celebrates — not merely tolerates — my outspokenness, my emphasis on collegiality and inclusivity, and even my blogging.  Silly me, I chose this job knowing I would be comfortable to engage in this kind of advocacy.  But, it took explicit affirmation from my colleagues, chair, and dean to fully acknowledge and appreciate it.  It seems I am appreciated because of, not despite, my emphasis on intellectual activism and accessibility.  So, until I begin seeing indications to the contrary, I am going to keep being myself.  I feel even more compelled to do this kind of work, and take this kind of approach, because of the number of scholars who can’t.

Beyond Allies: A Call For Supportive Academic Communities

I am only one person.  A mere mortal.  So, I am keenly aware that I need the support of others to survive.  I need ever greater support to thrive.  And, in trying to make a difference in the world — to change it — I need even more support, particularly from allies.  At the start of my (hopefully long) career as an academic, I have been reminded immediately of the importance of academic allies.  But, allies sometimes get things wrong in their advocacy, or can even make matters worse.

In this post, I will articulate the the importance of allies, at least in my own life and career; and, I hope to convince you to be a better ally to other scholars (especially those on the margins of academe).  But, my larger plea is for academia communities to share the responsibility of support, inclusion, and equality.

The Problem

I have said plenty in conversations and in blog posts about the barriers to free speech in academia.  The culture of academia, as I perceive it, is one that celebrates individualism, status, competition, theory over praxis, and research over teaching.  The reward structure ensures that academics feel just anxious enough to stay focused on the carrot dangled before them.  Keeping one’s head down and mouth shut is demanded encouraged for the PhD, a tenure-track job, then for tenure, then promotion to full professors, then…  Do academics actually ever reach the promised land of “academic freedom”?

I raise this question with concern because those constraints stand at odds with the primary reason I pursued an academic career: to make a difference in the world.  I see no point to replicating the apolitical, quiet careers I see of others who have been touted as “academic greats.”  Doing so would produce yet another academic career that has no meaning to or influence on the world beyond the ivory tower.  (Let us agree to disagree that research in academic journals behind pay-walls is useful to the broader society.  That is why we invented impact factors and other ways to self-validate.)  Or worse, following the road too-often-traveled would reinforce inequality, at least within academia.

So, if I take the approach I had initially set out on, just staying silent long enough to “make it” and then start making changes, I would be waiting until retirement.  I have waited long enough, banking on days that are not promised to me, and success and “freedom” that might never come.  The expression, “well-behaved women seldom make herstory,” resonates with me.  I know I will regularly be faced with weighing success (or even job stability) with the power to make a difference; as I have noted before, I hope to forge some path between success and social justice, using each to advance the other.

As I noted in another post, I am exhausting myself by devoting energy toward being successful by traditional academic standards — a strategy that regularly feels inauthentic.  It is draining at a spiritual level to be something and someone I am not while pushing to create space for my authentic self and others like me.  I simply cannot do it alone, working toward the two big goals of keeping my job and creating change in academia and society.  Even if I chose not to go against the grain, I would still need support and guidance as a junior professor.

The need for support is especially apparent when I directly challenge “the system” or more powerful members within it.  On a number of occasions, I have spoken out and, in the face of being the sole voice before a powerful giant, ended up backing down out of fear.  Yet, on other occasions, I have spoken out and then became one of a chorus of voices, standing strong in solidarity.  Sometimes, those voices are mere whispers from behind me — a private message on Facebook to thank me for speaking out, an appreciative comment shared in passing in the hallway.

A Few Examples

Stop Saying “Mulatto”!

My entree into blogging as a form of advocacy began around age 12 or 13, as I joined an online forum for multiracial and multiethnic people.  But, I had been outspoken about the existence and equal treatment of mixed-race/ethnicity since the age of 5.  (I am sure that comes as little surprise to some who know me well…)  The first instance was pointedly asking my kindergarten teacher why I could only self-identify as one race.  I do not recall her response, though.

In my junior year English class in high school, we had a long-term substitute while our regular teacher was out on maternity leave.  He had us spend a great deal of time focusing on race, ethnicity, and nativity — specifically the experiences of Black Americans and African immigrants in the US.  At some point, we read a novel about a multiracial person; it was an older text, so the term “mulatto” was used to describe Black-and-white people.  As we discussed the text in class, a classmate spoke up: “well, the mulattoes… and, mulattoes…”  Growing increasingly offended, I shouted out, “stop saying ‘mulattoes’!”  Too angry to further explain, I sat and stewed as the class looked at me in shock and confusion.  Without skipping a beat, the (sub) teacher clarified that the term is considered offensive by some because it suggests Blacks and whites are of different species, thus mixed individuals are like mules (the offspring of a horse and a donkey).  And, we carried on.

To my surprise, he did not keep the attention on my outburst, nor did he attempt to discipline me thereafter.  It was as though my anger was expected and understandable.  It provided a moment for him to educate us about the term, not one to punish me.  That moment sticks with me today.

National Coming Out Day

A few months after I came out mid-way through my senior year of high school, I jumped to organizing my school’s minimal attempt to celebrate National Coming Out Day.  What this actually entailed was printing cards on my personal computer that participants would wear to explain their silence, then handing these out on the day of the silent protest.  In essence, this was a one-person initiative that had no input or support from the school or any staff.

One of the Junior ROTC teachers called me over in his typically gruff voice.  (I was an officer in JROTC, and president of its honor society.)  When I approached, he very kindly asked for a view of the cards to hand out to other students.  HUH?  I had braced myself to either be reprimanded for handing out “unauthorized” material or even have the caused dismissed all together.  I did not have him pegged for an ally to the LGBTQ community.  Staying true to the silent protest, I obliged by handing him a few cards without saying a word, and then nodded to express my thanks.  People can surprise you.

Staff And Faculty Allies In College

The most impressive expression of support in my life has come from staff and faculty at my alma mater (UMBC).  Students who become involved on campus, be it within already formed student organizations or even engaging in advocacy and activism, will find a great deal of support, especially from the student affairs side of the college.  As my participation in LGBTQ activities shifted into LGBTQ activism, these mentors and allies supported me and provided me opportunities to advance my initiatives.  That work moved to a bigger stage, including the formation of a group of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, eventually capturing the attention of the university president.

Looking back, I am in awe of the level of support I received from staff and faculty who put their name on the line.  Many publicly signed their name to a petition we started calling for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students.  I still chuckle as I think about one of my faculty advisors turning to the vice president to pronounce, “I’m queer – I mean, in a political sense.  I am queer!”  When my then-boyfriend and I successfully ran for homecoming court, facing hostility in the form of graffiti on our flyers, the then-director of student life worked with us to report these acts of intolerance; she also quietly handled a call from an angry parent who complained that we kissed when we were crowned homecoming king and king.  My faculty advisors signaled their strong support by allowing me to devote my honors thesis research to advancing the LGBTQ activism in which I was engaged.

Now, I realize UMBC spoiled me.  It set pretty high expectations for the kind of mentorship and support, and commitment to social justice, that I should find in academic communities.  Let’s just say there are reasons why I keep looking back to those days so fondly…

A Call For Allies In Academia

On several occasions, I have spoken up to call out colleagues who made dangerous public statements about how the world works.  Each time, I run the risk of any professional consequences that come from pissing off potential journal editors or reviewers, grant reviewers, tenure-letter writers, etc.  And, I may also face backlash or be dismissed (i.e., “you uppity…”).

When I have had allies to chime in, or at least whisper an “amen!” or “thank you,” I feel greater support as I stand on my soapbox.  When I do not, I start to question whether it was wrong of me to speak, or that I am reading too much into something or even being overly sensitive, or maybe I just do not know what I am talking about.  I hate to feel that I am begging for attention or validation, but, as a “Tweep” pointed out, we need that sense of solidarity to keep us going in our fight for justice.

Unfortunately, both tradition and the academic punishment reward system keep many of us silent.  For example, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the hostile response that Dr. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner received when she advanced the unpopular advice to look locally for jobs, that it is okay to set geographical parameters in one’s job search.  Of course, the hostile posts of disagreement came first, and eventually others chimed in to thank Dr. Leventhal-Weiner for her post, and to criticize the aforementioned  comments.  It is not fair to make assumptions about her response, but I imagine I would have felt discouraged by the kinds of opposition she received simply for offering advice (a free service for her colleagues, current and future!).

Besides that, what seems to be a new generation of more social justice-minded scholars is currently bound and gagged by job market and tenure-track concerns.  We are simply too few and far between, and too far down the totem pole to speak out against injustice in the academy.  In order to keep the jobs for which the odds are not in our favor, we keep our heads down and mouths shut.  So, that speaks even more to the need of allies who are in positions of power, be it in the academy (e.g., chairs, administrators, tenured faculty) and/or in society (e.g., white heterosexual cis men), to advocate for those without/with less power.  But, this has to be proactive.  Please, stop waiting for marginalized faculty to raise concerns and then reacting.  There is too much at stake to consider before complaining or asking for help.  And, do not ask us for the solutions to problems that have existed longer than we have been alive!

Bystander Intervention

Beyond Allies: A Bystander Intervention Approach

So, once again, I am calling for a bystander intervention approach.  Since many of the problems in academia are systemic and institutional in origin, we cannot rely alone on individuals — namely those impacted by these problems — to create change.  This means that we should all feel a sense of responsibility for improving academia, for making it a more humane and just place.

Listen With Respect And An Open-Mind

Tenure, She Wrote notes the following for men to be better allies to their women colleagues in academia:

Know when to listen. Don’t assume you understand what it’s like for women. Don’t interject with “but this happens to men, too!” Don’t try to dismiss or belittle women’s concerns. Remember that women are often reacting to  a long history of incidents, big and small.

Appreciate what (quantitative) data can tell us about larger patterns, but do not ignore personal narratives and anecdotes.  This may be more salient to me from the quantitative-biased field of sociology.  But, I have noticed a tendency to uncritically rely on data, sometimes to dismiss one person’s experiences or to conveniently to bolster one’s point in an argument.

Keep in mind that most reports of discrimination and harassment are not false reports, be it intentionally lying or being “overly sensitive.”  In fact, these manifestations of oppression are underreported because of the potential risk for retaliation or simply being dismissed by others.  Oppressed people actually go through quite a bit of processing before they label an act as discrimination or harassment; that is, there is a chance they will conclude shy of that, giving the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.  So, by the time they are expressing this to another soul, they have already processed how likely it is they were the victim of unfair or hostile treatment, and weighed the costs of being wrong or dismissed.

Speak Up And Out, Often

Support others — in everyday matters, but especially when the stakes are high.  If it is dangerous to demonstrate this support publicly, do so privately.  Offer some sort of signal that you agree — and, even if you do not agree, that you appreciate someone’s bravery for speaking out when it might have been easier and safer to stay silent.  Take Dr. Chris Uggen’s advice to be nice and affirming of one’s colleagues in general.  Even when colleagues are not intentionally avoiding you, it is easy to feel isolated in academia; it would be nice to be the occasional recipient of random acts of kindness, not just the big department, university, and discipline awards and honors.  In my first semester, facing a few challenges outside of work, I really could have used more support at work to ease the emotional burden.

Make equality and inclusion a priority no matter who is present.  Please do not bring up racial inclusion only when people of color are present at a university or department meeting.  Yet, do not assume that marginalized scholars’ primary concern in life is their marginalized status.  (Yes, there are academics of color who do not study race and racism; there are white academics who do study race and racism.)  Also, do not leave it to marginalized scholars to be the one’s to bring this up, for there are numerous external and internal barriers to freely tell a predominantly-privileged room of people that inequality exists in that room.  We must stop leaving the burden of fighting oppression solely to the oppressed.

Act, When Appropriate

Assess the ways in which you are reproducing inequality and practicing discrimination or exclusion.  I really appreciated a post at Tenure, She Wrote, “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic.”  This included being vigilant of practices that burden or devalue women, especially those that hinder their academic careers and create a hostile work environment.  I would add finding any opportunity to work inclusion and social justice into one’s classroom (and beyond it) — and, especially if one is of the relevant privileged group, and thus freed from concern about being evaluated by students as biased.

When possible, use your privileged status(es) to make space for others currently excluded from the room or conversation.  I do not mean to imply we should put marginalized people’s voice on a pedestal — especially if you only do so when it is about their experiences. But, I certainly emphasize that research expertise in absence of personal experience cannot stand in place of personal experience (with or without research expertise).  Whether it is about diversifying the faculty or designing a new major, any conversation is always incomplete if diversity is lacking.

Concluding Thoughts

What I am calling for here is a collective responsibility to be better colleagues in academia — which includes being an ally and advocate for others where possible.  Our colleagues, particularly those on the margins of academia, need to feel that their perspective, experiences, and contributions are valid and appreciated.  Sometimes, this means listening to affirm someone’s experiences (rather than defining someone else’s reality).  Other times, it means pushing to create space for those who are currently and historically excluded from certain spaces.  This shift has to be both collective (we are all responsible) and proactive (we actively seek for ways to advocate or to offer support); we cannot place the burden to make academia a more inclusive and humane place on the shoulders of scholars who are systematically excluded and victimized.

A few additional resources: