Confessions Of a Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the first part of this two-part essay, Grace reflects on the invisibility of scholars from working-class and  poor families, and the struggles these scholars face in academia; to rectify this, she calls for community-building among working-class scholars in academia.

Confessions Of A Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

When I set out to write this essay, I had little concrete idea of what I sought to achieve. I knew that there was something unique about becoming an academic from a situation of clear poverty, and that I needed to make a case for this experience as existing along a real line of marginalization. Or at least call for recognition of the unique difficulties with which poverty-class academics struggle. While we certainly exist as a group, poverty-class academics seem curiously quiet about our origins, compared to academics of color and the LGBT academics, who fought (and still fight) long and hard for their visibility. The question I am left with is, what can we do to better advocate for similar recognition, and why is this important?

There is certainly a need for communal resource-sharing. It seems likely that we are all haunted by the threat of “Ph.D Poverty”, or the possibility of becoming bright, well-trained victims of the adjunctification crisis. And many of us know that we can look forward to heavy bills to pay from ballooning student debt, whether or not we are able to get a job matching our qualifications in an increasingly break-neck, competitive market. I hope that by coming clean about a history some of us actively hide, others might do so as well, and we might share our experiences and expertise regarding how to live in this academic environment which for so long had been quite happy to retain its white-middle-class, homogeneity.

Having frequently struggled with gaps in social, cultural, or human capital, and in struggling to access vital resources, I came to desperately seek social class-based advice for making it through graduate school. Given the few working-class folk in my own department, and knowing my poverty-born friends in other departments were having the same struggles, I called upon the surely endless fount of Internet wisdom available. Spoiler alert: the pickings were scarce. How could this be? Surely there are others besides me and a few peers who wrestle with class-based marginalization in academe. Surely there are others who have felt keenly a lack of resources and solidarity. Yet, despite a few out-of-date websites that attempted to address this gap, there was nothing with the scale, specificity, and upkeep as with those for communal resources aligned to other social equity movements (race, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Growing Up In Poverty

To clarify, let me return to the personal context: growing up, my family of four had an annual income between $8,000 and $12,000. We lived in a rural county in Appalachia, in which, as of the 2010 US Census, there was a 25% poverty rate. Without even needing to ask, all students in all levels of district schools were enrolled for the income-based program for government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches. It was common for our high school classes to have more students than textbooks. Very few of my classmates attended or graduated from college. As a child and teenager, I struggled to understand why every minute expenditure, even for our $1 lunch meat or an occasional $1.25 soda was such a difficult, stress-fraught decision. It was difficult to deal with seldom being able to visit friends from school or try high school sports, not because of time commitments, but because we couldn’t afford to use that much gas for the car. A computer left on overnight was a grave offense in our household, as there was legitimate doubt we could pay for the extra electricity.

Multiple studies support the claim that experiences of childhood poverty follow us well into adulthood, yielding not only socially observable effects, but even effects upon our physiology and genetics.1 In keeping with the findings of other researchers, I have certainly felt that as a young adult, such moments had deeply affected my development as an adult. My sister and I still battle powerful guilt for any purchase that is not materially necessary for our survival or basic health – even when we have had the disposable income. The process of paying bills, a generally unpleasant task for any person, is a viscerally fearful task which each month leaves me trembling and taking deep breaths to force a return to calm – even when I can cover each cost. There is always a nagging fear that no matter how careful and organized I’ve been, a bill has been forgotten, or an overdraft has occurred. We avoid most routine medical care, and only seek medical attention when our bodies cannot function, because we are so used to not being able to afford office visits or medication. Experience tells us that it is nearly impossible to get an invoice for medical services in advance of receiving care; it is usually easier to go without and hope for the best. I had my first-ever eye exam at 23 years old, upon discovering my graduate health insurance covered one annual exam. Turns out I need glasses. Might even get them someday.

Class-Based Struggles In Academia

I do not recite this tale to earn pity-points; despite these issues, I actually had a very happy childhood. But as my sister and I entered adulthood, and as I entered graduate school, these uncertainties and anxieties took on new, more powerful forms. Little differences began to creep into my graduate experience in small, subtly alienating ways, and I suspect that many of these examples will be familiar to readers. Some of these are issues that are generally just a nuisance for many academics, but could be damaging to the career prospects of someone with no savings account or trust fund, no credit, or no experience in which questions to ask their mentors.

  • I learned that people have different definitions of being “broke.” For some, it means “not much spending money”; for me, it meant the money does not exist. I literally have no money. Bank balance: $3. No cash. No credit. I no longer use the term in conversation; it has become too frustrating to continue doing so.
  • Some might have the feeling that other students somehow knew something that they didn’t. We have no summer funding in our program, but somehow I felt like the only one in a genuine panic about how to pay my rent for three months, let alone conduct the expected research and study. The possibility of having to beg to stay with my sister in her one-bedroom apartment was a dangerously imminent reality after one summer job, without notice, put all employees on two-plus-week leave due to lack of work to give us. This, after the hard realization that this job did not offer the full-time hours I was promised in the first place. How do so many other students appear to flawlessly “make it work” for these months?
  • Some may struggle to articulate why many departments’ reimbursement-style travel funding would not allow them to attend conferences for the so-vital-to-success networking experiences. In my case, it was because I did not have any money or credit with which to pay up-front. It wasn’t that it was committed elsewhere – it did not exist. To lay down over $500 worth of registration fees, airfare, and hostel reservations after struggling to buy food, with a possibly six-month wait for reimbursement was tragically laughable. Unfortunately, this funding style is not at all unique to our fairly average university; I see stories of such funding style splattered across various websites, blogs, and forums created as common spaces for academics.
  • It is also difficult to explain to others in a meaningful way why I did not simply take out loans to bolster my available funds. For people from backgrounds of poverty, debt is a tricky beast. Some have embraced it all too easily, only to suffer afterwards, and others struggle to get access to even small loans. My family lives with a vague, ever-present fear of debt – a fear I inherited as a child. To us, debt is something that can ruin lives. Whether these views are technically correct, they constitute an aspect of socialization with which poverty-class academics must struggle every time we see a need we have which cannot be fulfilled on our stipends or summer jobs. The decision to use credit is seldom a light one.

A Call For Community Among Poverty-Class Academics

These are just a handful of the starker experiences one may struggle with, and yet other subtle day-to-day moments may also reinforce socialized and lifestyle differences. The interesting thing about these experiences and the insidiousness of class-based gaps in cultural, social, and human capital is that I believed these struggles were due solely to my own shortcomings and lack of sufficient efforts and dedication. I felt underserving of the right to complain, feeling that, endlessly, I could have exerted more effort in depriving myself of small joys in order to save money. Really, nobody needs to visit a café. Ever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized many of these issues were not unique or limited to personal shortcomings. There are many of us, quietly working our way through the graduate socialization process, atomizing ourselves in an attempt to narrow the capital gap; we believe these to be private missions. We have all labored to produce our own solutions, possibly failing to realize that we can benefit from finding each other and pooling our resources and experiences, with the hope that we and others can avoid having to learn every lesson the hard way. In some ways, it makes the most sense for us to band together and take advantage of the resources that we can offer ourselves; our more equipped peers certainly are.

That, I suppose, is my call, and the purpose of this piece. I find it rather surprising that a group of people as resourceful as we are have failed to truly gather those resources. I think we need to better advocate for ourselves. We need to be unafraid to admit our own existence, come out of the poverty “closet,” and share our stories. What lessons did we learn the hard way? What recommendations would we make to new graduate students and new faculty from the same backgrounds, to help lift each other up? Which tips and tricks have we developed to get through our theses, dissertations, and grant deadlines; tips that don’t assume we have the money to attend a retreat, get noise-canceling headphones, or even barricade ourselves in a café? I know that together, we are a veritable fount of knowledge. As researchers, teachers, and scholars more generally, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sharing it with the world. How about we share some of it with each other, too?

See the second part of my essay, “Getting It Done – Whatever ‘It’ Is,” in which I offer my own tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in academia as a poverty-class scholar.

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Notes

1 Sandoval, D. A., Rank, M. R., & Hirschl, T. A. (2009). The Increasing Risk of Poverty Across the American Life Course. Demography, 46(4), 717–737.

 

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.

College

My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.

I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress

Tenure

I have heard the term before — tenure-track stress.  I have decided to recognize it as a real condition, one that encompasses a set of stressors associated with the tenure-track for junior faculty.  As a critical medical sociologist, I am hesitant to medicalize yet another social experience, recognizing that the illness and appropriate cure lie within the individual sufferer rather than society — or, in this case, academia.  But, like minority stress (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization that threaten the well-being of minority groups), the qualifier — tenure-track  — explicitly denotes the external source of such stress.

As I understand the tenure-track, it represents a probationary period in which one is expected to establish themselves as a scholar (i.e., research, teaching, service — in that order…).  The carrot that dangles at the end of the stick is lifetime job security (or “lifetime” “job security,” with scare quotes, depending on your perspective).  Cut-throat, status-obsessed colleges and universities tend to take a “sink or swim” approach, others attempt to offer transparency and support to facilitate success on the tenure track, and, still others defy classification because they don’t have a clear approach to the tenure-track process.  Ironically, the demands to achieve tenure have steadily risen over time as such positions have become more rare (i.e., 75 percent of PhDs do not secure a tenure-track position after they graduate).

Origins Of Tenure-Track Stress

Recently, I discovered that the path to earning tenure (for me, as with most, a 6 year period [2013-2019]) has brought on a high level of stress that I have never experienced before.  In my six years of graduate school, I felt stressed about the dreaded academic job market and publishing to improve my odds on it; but, I never doubted that I would graduate.  Despite my success as a PhD student, even defying expectations, I regularly carry doubt and anxiety about earning tenure.  Though too infrequently, I sometimes stood up to professors, I let my voice be heard, but I never feared that I would be dismissed from the program.  Now, as a professor, I am relieved each day that I have not been fired.  Grad schools have a 50 percent completion rate, but around 80 percent of assistant professors earn tenure.  It is literally irrational, as indicated by these numbers, for me to fret about tenure while I assumed success in grad school.

What is unique about the tenure-track, then?  The two most obvious differences for me are the loss of readily accessible mentorship and peer support.  The training wheels have come off.  I am certainly welcome to email or call my dissertation committee members and friends from graduate school — but, only once in a while.  Even if they didn’t take issue with more frequent contact, my own self-doubt would gnaw at me if I felt that I needed help often.  My grad program did its job in getting me into a faculty position to carry on with the same success, but also continue to grow professionally.  Senior colleagues at my current institution are available for advice, but I cannot expect them to mentor me intensely; I would do myself a disservice to let those who will evaluate me for tenure suspect that I cannot handle the job on my own.

I also want to suggest that the expectations for tenure are growing and, yet, still ambiguous.  But, I would never conclude that the expectations to graduate (and subsequently get a job) were easy and transparent.  My grad department had few explicit milestones, wherein success in a broad sense was to be learned through independent research (i.e., dissertation, thesis, other projects).  In either context, when I ask 10 people what it takes to be successful, I receive 10 different answers (if not more).  So, I cannot say confidently that the tenure-track is more stressful because of unclear standards.

Of course, there are a great deal more expectations.  My advisors were not lying when they joked that graduate students have a lot of free time relative to faculty (at least in terms of work).  The teaching load increases (for many, if not most, of us), the service requests pile up, all while we must publish more and become more visible in our discipline and subfields.  Each day, I feel pulled between self-care (so that I do not burn myself out before I even file for tenure) and getting everything done (so that I won’t be asked to leave before tenure).  Oh, and sprinkle in trying to find ways to make a difference in the world!

There is also another, somewhat perverse source of tenure-track stress: you are expected to be stressed.  I don’t mean the process is so stressful that we have come to expect it; this is a given.  I mean that some colleagues have indicated that it is a part of my job to be stressed.  I have noticed that some tend to evaluate the worth of junior faculty, in part, based on how stressed they are.  Being “cool, calm, and collected” is seen as suspicious; such lucky bastards people must not be doing enough (including just worrying).  I have acknowledged that I sometimes play into this because a self-doubting, validation-needing junior professor (male privilege acknowledged, here) can win the sympathy and support of senior colleagues that a confident, self-assured (read: smug, arrogant, uppity) junior professor would not.  I am guilty of playing the role expected of me as a tenure-track professor.

Symptoms Of Tenure-Track Stress

Having experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder for almost 5 years now, I recognize that tenure-track stress shares symptoms with other forms of distress and mental illness.  (And, I recognize that my own case of tenure-track stress is exacerbated by my preexisting, actually-in-the-DSM mental illness.)  There’s constant worry, insomnia, neglecting self-care, and various physical symptoms (e.g., headache, depressed immune function, body aches).  But, I have found there are unusual symptoms that suggest tenure-track stress is its own beast.  I will sprink in some treatments and “cures” along the way, as well.

Constant Comparisons With Others

I began 2015 doing one thing that I said I would stop doing in 2014: comparing myself to others.  My laptop was already on since my partner and I watched the ball drop online on new year’s eve in New York city; otherwise, I try to stay off of the computer when I am at home as a drastic means of leaving work at work.  I stumbled across a fellow academic’s blog, seeing just how much money they had received through grants.  “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered.  Frustrated, I went to bed, only to spiral from envy about grants to anxiety about my slow-moving projects.  This was not the way I wanted to start the new year.

I have sometimes wondered, “we can do that?” — especially when I hear about friends’ and colleagues’ novel and unusual accomplishments.  Soon-to-be-Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom compiled some of her blog posts into a book.  We can do that?  Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own business.  We can do that — and before tenure?  A few friends have broken the “lavender ceiling” in sociology by publishing on sexualities in the discipline’s top journals.  We’re doing that now?  I am incredibly happy that my talented friends are beginning to share their smarts with the world in incredible ways.  But, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little green with envy.

Besides these comparisons to junior faculty and advanced grad students, I sometimes look at the CVs of established senior colleagues as though they were baseball trading cards.  And, while I admire their work for a nanosecond, I reliably fall into the trap of feeling inadequate.  “There’s no way I can accomplish all of that!” I say discouragingly to myself.  “There’s no way I can publish all of that,” I think as I look at the CVs of peers and senior colleagues at research-intensive universities.  It is illogical — yes, it simply defies logic — for me to compare myself at a liberal arts college, only 1.75 years into the tenure-track, to scholars nearing retirement, as well as those of any seniority at other institutions.  I have found some solace in remembering to use senior colleagues at my own institution as indicators of successful tenure cases.  But, even then, the comparisons elicit some anxiety.

I suspect the cure, at least for this symptom, is to recognize that I will never find a fair comparison, and to appreciate that there are many ways to be an academic.  It is unfair to compare my record to those of others because I do not know every detail of their personal and professional lives.  Some people are wildly successful in terms of publishing because they are supported by research assistants who are paid but not given authorship credit.  Some publish more slowly because their method requires a long, painstaking process of data coding and analysis.  Some people are “rockstars” but are miserable, some people have a few pubs but are content.  More importantly, I must remind myself that publishing is only one task; I also deeply value teaching, academic service, community service, and activism.

Self-Doubt And Selling Myself Short

I have come to recognize that these comparisons are a consequence of the desire to become an academic rockstar.  But, it has taken me a little while longer to recognize that I tend to unknowingly discount my own accomplishments, talents, and strengths in comparing myself to others.  On the tenure-track front, I’m not doing so bad for myself — two publications in print with another on the way, a dissertation award, one paper currently under review with a few more in the works for this year.  I am competent enough in my classes to receive generally positive course evaluations, with numerous students taking subsequent courses with me.  I served on my department’s job search last semester, and am becoming more involved with the university’s LGBTQ office.  And, despite warnings of my impending irrelevance by taking a liberal arts job, I have been invited to run or be appointed for various positions in my discipline.  I think it is safe to say I am doing alright for a 30-year-old.

Sure, I will toot my own horn once more.  This blog’s visibility has spread farther and more quickly than I could have ever imagined.  I was recently surprised to begin seeing other people share our posts in Facebook groups before I did.  A few people have referred to Conditionally Accepted as a resource.  Sure, the blog is not a book (yet?), or an organization/business (yet???), or a publication in some top journal (but, I’ve got other projects in mind).  But, not many people can say they have a platform outside of the classroom, outside of university meetings, and outside of academic journals to speak publicly about inequality in academia.  I deserve to give myself a little more credit for creating such a space, while still being successful at things that “count” for tenure and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

And, in general, I do not have a record of major failures in my professional life.  Sure, I stumbled at the beginning of college, and then again in graduate school.  I started college in a scholarship program that was not a good fit academically (and socially and politically); but, I was able to switch to an open scholarship and then thrived as a sociology major.  I started graduate school miserable, totally unprepared for the professional socialization process and naive about inequality in the academy.  But, I eventually secured a fellowship, which allowed me to graduate early with a great job lined up.  The tenure-track has not started with a stumble (knock on wood), which may mean that I’ll be even more successful without time lost on regrouping, reevaluating, naivete, etc.  I would say that I am pretty resilient, especially with the support of family, friends, and colleagues.  Doubting my success as a professor just doesn’t make sense, but I still struggle with self-doubt.

Impatience

A symptom related to discounting my success thus far is a self-imposed demand for immediate success.  I have been provided six years to establish myself before filing for tenure.  Yet, I have repeatedly told myself “if only I can get that ASR, then I can relax!”  That is, once I have achieved the gold standard of scholarship — in this case, publishing in the top journal in sociology, American Sociological Review — then there is little doubt that I have proven myself as a scholar.  Of course, I feel behind because I know of a few PhDs who already had ASRs before graduation, and have come across junior scholars with that gold star on their CVs.

What I tend to forget, besides the foolishness of comparing myself, is that scholars grow and progress at different speeds, along different paths.  I am keenly aware that those with ASRs before tenure, or even before graduation, are generally white, cis men, straight, and/or from middle-class families, and did not struggle during the first two years of graduate school.  They didn’t waste time and energy trying to navigate (and, sometimes, fight against) the professional socialization of graduate school.  And, most who I know aren’t attempting to publish on marginal scholarship (e.g., sexualities, trans studies, intersectionality).  An ASR for my relatively privileged colleagues is a professional success; for me, it will feel like a damn victory for every underdog in academia.

I have been reminded by other underdog colleagues that achieving that gold star is not only rare, but extremely rare early in one’s career.  For most who achieve an ASR or their own field’s equivalent, it took the culmination of year’s of work, building up to some discipline-moving idea.  It takes time to build up one’s reputation and for the resistance against one’s ideas to lessen.  It is silly to think that I would reach such great heights so early in my career.  I am confident that I will publish in ASR in the years to come, and the reward will be that much sweeter for having to work for it rather than getting it right away.

I should note that this symptom is almost exclusive to the domain of research.  I don’t find myself racing to start a new class, or to prepare lectures weeks in advance, or to get to a department meeting, and so forth.  I feel much more calm and content when I think of research, along with everything else, as just a part of my 8am-6pm job.  Slow and steady wins the race!

Self-Restraint And Waiting For Permission

While a pat on the head, and being told “easy tiger,” would assuage some of my impatience, I still acknowledge that I hold back on doing certain things that I would like to do.  As I said earlier, some neat things are simply outside of my purview — “wow, we can do that?”  It is as though I am waiting for permission (i.e., tenure) to begin living, to begin taking chances as a scholar, to begin being myself.  Frankly, I am too scared to do certain things that I worry will lead to a tenure denial or a tarnished/non-existent academic reputation in general.  I obsess daily about what to wear to work, fearing that anything short of a suit and tie is too casual but also hating the discomfort of professional attire designed for skinny white bodies.  I often feel on edge in my interactions with colleagues, administration, and students, worrying I might slip and reveal my true self.  Despite being vocal (but still restrained) online, I bite my tongue and downplay my radical activist self at work.  Who am I fooling?  (Myself.)

This self-restraint is fueled by fear, as well as relying on models of success who don’t look like me and don’t share my values and goals.  I do myself a huge disservice by thinking inside the box — what does it mean to be successful by mainstream academic standards?  Sure, I pushed back against the pressure to “go R1,” and I publicly declared my efforts to do tenure my way.  But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t cling to normative academic standards as markers for success.  I know, in being “conditionally accepted” in academia, I can be all of these identities or I can do radical work (including activism) — but, not both if I expect to be taken seriously in the mainstream of sociology.  I don’t see many outspoken fat multiracial queer feminist men in academia… or any, really, besides me.  So, why risk my position?  Would I rather keep my job or empower my communities?  Would I rather wear a noose tie or demand that my medical sociology class focus on transgender health?

Maybe there aren’t others who identically mirror my social location, values, and goals.  But, there are others who have been thinking outside of the box for years.  They haven’t been waiting for permission to speak, to critique, to exist.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently really paid attention to Sociologists for Women in Society — a professional organization that explicitly notes that it helps to “nurture feminist scholarship and make both the academy and the broader society a more just and feminist place.”  I’ve known of SWS all along, but never got more involved than paying membership dues.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year’s winter meeting, and my summer plans remain up in the air; but, I seriously considered attending once I saw that the organization genuinely lives up to this mission.  For years, I have only seriously been involved in the discipline’s major organization, American Sociological Association, because I have clung to the “mainstream.”  I have missed out on involvement in the Association for Black Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, among other critical and activist oriented organizations.

This symptom of tenure-track stress, the denial of my own authenticity, will slowly eat me alive if I leave it unchecked.  I risk finding myself either completely “souled out” (albeit tenured) or bitter and exhausted, perhaps having left academia all together.  I learned early in graduate school that feeding my soul was just as crucial to my survival as feeding my body.  I seem to have forgotten that lesson — or, the intense effort to de-radicalize my image while on the job market caused this amnesia.  I recognize now that my ticket to gracefully crossing the finish line to tenure is to be successful while being myself.  I made sure to accept a job offer at a place that promised to support me as me, so it’s about time I took the school up on it.

Closing Thoughts

I did my time in graduate school.  I emerged that traumatic chapter of my life alive, albeit bruised and battered from efforts to “beat the activist” out of me.  I am slow to trust others’ assessments of my success because I have been doubted and dismissed in the past.  But, I must overcome tenure-track stress once and for all.  To the extent that I can, I aim to enjoy the ride, appreciating the feedback and support I receive along the way.  I aim to do tenure my way so that I can mentor future junior colleagues with confidence, rather than advise them to to sell out, shut up, and stress out.  There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Taking A Real Summer Break

Jeana jorgensenDr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer.  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general).  Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Dr. Jorgensen has kindly shared a post from her blog, in which she declares she is taking a real summer break for the sake of her well-being.

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Summer Break (For Real)

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? Read this crowd-sourced list for some insight.)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

“Tick Tock: Love or Learning?” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Manya WhitakerDr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other classShe has kindly agreed to share the following blog post on tenure, time, and starting a family.  Also, see a related post on her blog, “Single and Fabulous!(?) Unmarried in Academia.”   Be sure to check out Dr. Whitaker’s other awesome guest blog posts at Conditionally Accepted, as well.

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Tick Tock: Love or Learning?

I started my PhD program 1 month after my 21st birthday. I was 2 months shy of my 26th birthday when I got my PhD. I am very young to be a faculty member. I remind myself that if all goes as planned, I will still be of marriageable age when I’m tenured. I don’t have to rush. I have some time. But that’s not true for most (female) PhDs. Our clocks are ticking—biological and tenure.

For those who don’t know, tenure is the goal for any professor. In general, here is the process:

  • Tenure-track assistant professor for 3 years
  • Third year review
  • Semester sabbatical (if you’re fortunate enough to be at a school that gives you this)
  • Another 2.5 years of teaching
  • Submit your tenure file to your committee at the beginning of year 6 (in some schools, this is year 5)
  • Anxiously wait for them to either tell you ‘Congratulations! You have a job for life!orUnfortunately, we are unable to offer you tenure’ which really means: ‘you have a semester to pack your things and find a new job where you will likely have to start your tenure clock over’.

In order to get tenure, schools require their faculty to perform in 3 areas: Teaching, Research, and Service. The weight given to each area differs between schools, but the general rule of thumb is that you need to be excellent in two of them and ‘good’ to ‘very good’ in the third.

I won’t bore you with more of the tenure process, but suffice it to say that at most Research I institutions, you need to publish 5-6 peer reviewed articles in order to get tenure. That’s an article a year (to put in perspective, it generally takes a year to get through the publishing process). At teaching institutions, your teaching evaluations need to average ‘excellent’. That means one ‘average’ course could tank you.

Amidst these high expectations, where do we find time to meet our soul mate?

I’m not sure professors have a good answer for that. Those who do, I welcome your input. Here are the barriers to love I’ve experienced thus far in the Academy:

  • Stress—this was especially true during graduate school. It’s really hard to maintain a relationship when you are emotionally and mentally drained. Who wants to be around someone who is tired, irascible, and just worn down?
  • Time—now that I’m a full time professor trying to cram research, teaching, and service into my days, by the time I get home, I’m exhausted. When I’m asked out on a date, I want to say ‘I only have an hour because I still have papers to grade, a lesson plan to write, emails to respond to, an IRB proposal to submit, and a manuscript revision waiting.’ But I don’t say that. I go out for 2-4 hours and come home even more tired because I’ve used what little energy I had to keep on my ‘date face’ all evening.
  • Intimidation—this is a big one. If one more guy says ‘oh wow! You’re a professor?!?! You must be really smart’, I am going to throw my plate of mediocre food right in his face. I got this so often, I started telling people ‘I’m a teacher’ instead of saying ‘I’m a professor’. This yielded a completely different reaction. All of a sudden, guys were excited and happy to discuss my career choice instead of hastily changing the subject to more comfortable (for them) territory. I only did this twice. I am a professor. I shouldn’t have to alter my profession for the sake of your ego.
  • Paucity of Options—in a previous post on my blog, “Academia is a Lonely Place,” I mentioned how isolating the Academy is. This is especially true if you are young, a woman, or faculty of color (or all three like me). For those who want to date someone in their age range and/or ethnic group, the pickings are slim. For those who don’t mind branching out, it is common that the men are simply not interested in you. In no way am I implying there are prejudice or racist feelings at play; all I’m saying is that asking a white guy to date a woman of color with a PhD and a solid career is asking him to do what almost no human can: be comfortable with a lot of difference. And when we do find those men who appear comfortable, it’s natural for us to question it. I often find myself asking ‘why are you interested in me?’ As I write this I feel a bit of shame that I have gotten to the point where I can’t view someone’s interest in me as genuine. But experience has taught me that often, I am arm candy for their ego; an intellectual display piece meant to boost their street credibility; a ‘new experience’ or a ‘chocolate fantasy’. But rarely am I just a cool, funny woman they’d like to get to know.

I know that many professors are happily married with families. I know that many professors are happy with just their professional success. But those who want both—they scare me. They are the ones who look haggard, are always rushing around, who show up late to meetings and return emails at crazy hours. They are the ones who can never come out for drinks or attend after hour functions at work. They are the ones whose passion for teaching or research or for their relationship is starting to fade. They are who I fear becoming.

I’m reminded of a Sex and the City episode where Carrie posed the question: Can we have it all?

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.

Acknowledging The “One-Body Problem”

Source: PhDComics.com

I am worried about my fellow academics (broadly defined).  Many of us suffer from what I wish to call the “one-body problem.”  I am borrowing here from the term, “two-body problem,” which refers to the challenge of navigating the academic job market along with your (also) academic partner or spouse.  But, I mean “body” in a more literal, physical sense — the responsibility of taking care of one’s body.  It seems that some of us become so overworked and overwhelmed, either trying to meet high (and growing) demands and/or pushing ourselves to meet unrealistic standards.  Consequently, our health and well-being take a toll.

Speaking From Experience

I still steam a bit today when I recall being told by a professor that the mental health of graduate students is not a major departmental concern.  The excuse rationale was that (presumably) many of students come to graduate school with preexisting mental health problems.  If you were depressed when you entered the program, that is on you!  Now, good luck finishing your PhD in a timely manner…  The dismissal was disappointing, but the assertion was personally insulting.

Yes, I experienced teenage angst.  And, I was depressed at times, a reasonable state for pretending to be heterosexual through my childhood and adolescence.  Just like the depression I experienced at the start of college, I was depressed through my first two years of graduate school.  Sure, that all seems like reasonable, and predictable distress through an adjustment period.  But, when I hit the lowest point, letting graduate school push me to contemplating suicide, I knew it was time to make a radical change or get the hell out.  Fortunately, my university’s counseling services offered to put me in time-management group therapy… you know, to make time for suicide between classes.  (The lack of mental health services for graduate students warrants its own blog post…).  I decided to make graduate school work for me, as there was nothing else that I envisioned myself doing at that point in my life.

By my third year of grad school — a generally content period because I began teaching — I was experiencing chest pains.  Eventually, I saw a doctor because I worried it might be heart problems or hypertension.  But, also suspected it might be the symptom of some mental health problem.  Fortunately, the first physician I saw had the great recommendation to have sex to alleviate stress — an outlet with little worry about sexually transmitted infections because I was having sex with middle-class white women (or so he assumed).  I decided to see another physician thereafter, a doctor with a D.O. degree (and the promise of holistic care).  She immediately suggested it might be anxiety, but had me rule out all physical causes first — heartburn medication, stress test, cardiologist visits — oh, thank goodness for health insurance!  Once those were ruled out, I searched for a therapist.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”  My new therapist said it so casually.  Over the year or so that I saw her, much of our conversation focused on the stress of graduate school — both real, external demands, and those that I hyperinternalized.  In my mind, research was the main source of the anxiety I experienced, so I decided to take a year-long break from my research fellowship to teach — nope.  I was told that it would be foolish to “give up” a break from teaching.  And, even in disclosing “but, I have anxiety,” I was told a little bit of anxiety is good fuel for your productivity.  So, I pushed on, anxiety and all.  Certainly, I feel I was successful on the research front, and graduated early by my department’s standards.  But, not without some daily manifestation of anxiety: chest pains, lightheadedness, numbness in limbs, sore throats, eye-twitching, insomnia, nausea, shooting pain in my hip, etc.  I suspect the anxiety also made me vulnerable to other health problems I faced, like pneumonia, an allergic reaction to allergy medicine in my eyes, and multiple instances of strep throat.

Today, I have the anxiety under better control.  But, when I fail to take care of myself efficiently, and I let “should” pile up the many self-imposed demands, it can easily rear its ugly head.  Yes, if it were not for my body’s resistance, I probably would have given in to the pressure to take a job at a research-intensive university.

Audre Lorde

Make Self-Care Mandatory

Unfortunately, it took the sudden death of my 19-year-old cousin in 2011, followed by three more relatives’ deaths, and the recent passing of a friend and colleague, to force me to recognize my mortality and fragility.  It has been driven into my head and my heart that tomorrow is not promised to me.  If I die today, I should be able to do so proud of what I have made of my life and what I have done for others.  Around my office, I have little phrases, poems, and lists that emphasize living well, including the tenure-track as a “7-year postdoc.”  I do not resent that my body’s negative response to the stressful demands of graduate school altered my career path.  After all, my brain would be out of a job if the rest of my body dies.

Yes, we know well that we must be amazing teachers, prolific scholars, and serving on every committee possible in order to get a job, get tenure, get promoted, and any other academic milestone.  But, many of us fail to prioritize self-care as a part of our career.  What are you doing to ensure that you will even be alive long enough to get tenure, become full professor, or leave/retire from academia to start a second career?  What are you doing to ensure that you can achieve these career goals and be happy, and have a life, and feel healthy rather than depleted and frazzled?

I will say that one important starting point is to address the root of any mental health problems (or threats to your mental health):

  • The first is to take a hard look at your career, specifically the demands placed upon you and the obstacles you face.  How much are they affecting your health?  Is that compromise to your health worth the professional gains (in the long run)?  Is there something you can do differently, or do less of, or even just change how you think about it?
  • Second, catch yourself when you start to think of your brain and your body as separate entities.  I have too often found myself cursing my body for needing something that interrupted or limited my work.  I find myself negotiating with my bladder to let me finish writing that one last paragraph; instead, I should be seeing bathroom breaks as necessary mental breaks (which help productivity).  The mind-body connection is way outside of my expertise, so I appreciate the blogging of Dr. Crystal Fleming at Aware of Awareness on this topic.
  • Third, acknowledge that self-care is a political act 1) in pushing back against the institutional and cultural norms that increasingly demand unhealthy working conditions and 2) in daring to survive as a marginalized person in an oppressive society or institution.  You cannot wait for an institution that would rather you devote your life exclusively to your job to take care of you and provide necessary breaks.  You cannot expect the very institution that exposes you to discrimination, harassment, and undermining as a marginalized scholar to provide the resources to survive, let alone thrive.  Each semester, we are asked to make proper accommodations for our students’ abilities and health status, but the question of our own needs is never raised.

Beyond that, I do not have great advice for taking care of yourself.  Here are a few places to look for advice on self-care: