Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column at Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted and Vitae. Follow her on Twitter at @IvyLeagueLady.

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.

Open And Honest Discussions About Sexual Violence In Our Classes

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Shawn Patrick is a biracial cis woman (and not an Irish pub, as some tend to think) and an associate professor and professional counselor. Her take on higher education is influenced by her training in multicultural counseling and narrative theory. She blogs at The Rolling B about teaching, mental health and social justice.

Talk With Students About Sexual Assault

It was quiet when I shuffled into my house late one night. My children had long ago fallen asleep. My husband lounged on the couch framed by the blue light projected from some late-night television show. I dribbled onto the couch like a ripped sack of potatoes and said, “I think this course is starting to get to me.”

I was teaching a graduate course on abuse and violence. I had lectured about sexual assault in other courses, but this was the first time I have devoted an entire course to the topic. As a therapist, I have counseled many adults and children who have experienced forms of sexual, physical, emotional, mental and/or religious abuse. I have also supervised counselor trainees as they learn to work with clients who experience violence.

None of this is ever easy work. While my mind tends to spin regardless after a full day, any day in which I encounter the subject of sexual assault will guarantee me a sleepless night. This particular evening’s insomnia was brought on by the dawning realization that a full course on violence meant constantly living in abuse-related material.

Students identify abuse and trauma as the topic that they feel least prepared to address. Degree programs include courses or curricular expectations for basic training in abuse and trauma work. However, I suspect it is not a lack of knowledge that makes students anxious about the topic. Instead, the worry more likely stems from personal resonance fluttering near someone’s consciousness, threatening to remind them of just how familiar they are with abuse and assault.

“Rape culture” is a phrase bringing together the multiple factors contributing to an environment that normalizes sexual exploitation. While some people attempt to dismiss this and phrases like trigger warnings as “liberal whininess,” the statistics are clear. Conservative estimates indicate nearly one in two women and one in five men have experienced sexual violence, stalking or partner violence. More than 70 percent of men and women who have been assaulted experienced this before the age of 25. Sexual violence does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, but the majority of perpetrators are heterosexual men, and most are known to their victims.

The myths about sexual assault abound in society, including perceptions that men “can’t be raped” or that women “ask for it.” When a recent presidential candidate (now president) boasted about assaulting women, many Americans quickly dismissed such behavior as “locker room talk.” College and university administrators have conveyed the message to victims that they should leave the university “for their own safety,” essentially ending their education, while their perpetrators are allowed to continue on.

Such social conditions contribute to why the reporting of sexual violence tends to be low. The older a person is when the assault occurs, the less likely they are to report it. Family and friends often overtly and covertly coerce victims into staying silent — many of them intending to help but most likely doing more harm than good. Male victims of sexual violence are the least likely to report it due to fears of being ridiculed or not believed by others. Critics take nonreporting as proof that claims of rape are false. But silence is not a sign of guilt or weakness — rather, it is many victims’ last resort to protect their humanity.

It is not possible to live in our society without encountering the effects of a culture that normalizes rape. I know that when I teach a course about sexual violence, most people in the room have been affected by it. Trigger warnings, or essentially prepping students for the possibility that they will hear material that is potentially upsetting or disturbing, are normal. This is no different than explaining grading procedures or commenting on the weather. These comments acknowledge the reality we live in and demonstrate respect for everyone’s right to have a say in what happens in their physical space. Contrary to critics’ beliefs, trigger warnings do not shut down conversations; instead, they invite students into safe spaces. Because we have the courage to address sexual assault openly, we create trust and show students how to take a different stance towards violence.

Humility, Not Bravado

Sexual assault is no stranger in my life, either. I am often asked, “How do you do this work without your own history getting in the way?” As counselors, we ask this question mostly because therapy is meant to focus on the people whom we serve, not ourselves. But for students, this question is more related to fear that conversations about rape will overwhelm them. This is the power of sexual assault; it tries to convince us to hide, to mute our voices. Curiously, however, asking this question demonstrates the desire to put sexual assault in its place and not be silenced by it.

I tell my students what I tell myself. Professors hold an illusion that our histories and identities exit the room when we teach, as though we are simply talking textbooks. This is an unnatural and unrealistic expectation. We are who we are in the classroom, and tapping into the many facets of ourselves is what makes our teaching work the best. After last Nov. 8, I could not walk into my classroom and pretend that many students were not afraid of living in a country that decided women and people of color existed solely for the gratification of men. There was no way that I could honestly address myths about sexual violence without allowing my students to talk about those fears. I felt powerless; I could not pretend I was unaffected, was not “triggered” by watching men on television and in my community swagger and boast about “winning.”

Responding to students who also felt powerless, I had to remember that humility, not bravado, opens us to compassion. Embracing feelings of disgust, anger, sadness or hurt when witnessing stories of violence is not a sign of failure. Rather, it is the appropriate response — the human response. Stifling ourselves is exactly what assault wants so it stays in control. When we allow our reactions to breathe, we show ourselves what is valuable. Disgust reminds us human dignity should not be violated. Anger proves the act never should have occurred. Sadness lets me see the integrity of the other. And hurt tells me how much our connections matter.

Does this translate into telling students every intimate detail about my life? Of course not. I get to choose what I share and what I don’t. Students will see that I have feelings. But will this make me appear human in the classroom? I hope so.

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?