On Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict, And Marginality

KasimKasim Ortiz will be a PhD student in sociology at Vanderbilt University beginning in Fall 2014. His research interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, medical sociology, religion, urban sociology, and demography.  Although, he contends that such labels of interests are too restrictive, as he is merely interested in life!  Below, Kasim reflects on the difficulty of finding a supportive mentor, and the broader, uglier reality that academic training often takes the form of hazing.  He offers practical tips for grad students to survive.

May I Work With You, Please?  Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict & Marginality

~ To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.
Bayard Rustin

The Journey Begins…

Markedly a characteristic of graduate school is identifying a mentor, often someone whose research speaks to you, from which you can grow as a scholar and gain insight on their lived experience in academia.  Also, this decision is often influenced by an ability to gain access to mentors’ professional network. Because it’s more important who you know rather than what you know, right? Racialized minority graduate students often find themselves gravitating towards faculty of color for a myriad of reasons. This mentor could very well be the only one in your department doing research that interests you.  All the blacks doing research on blacks, all the Latinos doing research on Latinos, all the gays doing gay research, all the financially stable doing poverty research. Please excuse my cynicism and generalization concerning academics and financial stability, not trying to give another blow to those in the academy that find themselves financially unstable.

Well guess what, I want to research them all because all of them are me (well, except financially stable… I’m still in the “trenches”).  I recognize my own financial capital in being an “intellect.”   I digress.  This story begins in an email: “May I work with you??  I really like your research and have ideas from which I believe can build upon your work.”  Little did I realize that such “community” seeking would be the beginning of a tormented pilgrimage to belong!

Culture Shock Sets In

A growing space has been supplied to the discussion of academic hazing, especially along tenure, gendered, and racial lines.  Graduate students are subject to certain expected experiences of hazing as “part of the process.”  Hazing it directly complements expected norms of academic life?  The backdrop for this “socialization” process often is remedied with our sole purpose being to obtain those “letters” behind our name because that will then afford us “freedom.”  But why?  But how?  But really?  But wait! “Freedom” at what cost?  Grandma interjects in the back of my mind: “Boy you know nothing in life is free.”

Wikipedia (yes I know it’s not an academically “reputable” source) defines hazing as the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse, or humiliation used as a way of irritating a person into a group and can be comprised of physical and psychological abuse. Most campuses have “anti-hazing” policies aimed primarily at undergraduate fraternalism, yet you’d be hard pressed to locate highly enforced policies on campuses that speak to academic hazing among or between faculty and/or faculty and graduate students.

Let Me Reintroduce Myself, My Body is…..

In an attempt to muddle the water, I’d like to discuss my lived experience not only as a racialized minority in the academy but also as an openly gay man with perceived “femininity,” who happens to be outspoken. Now you might ask yourself, why are those unamenable and innate qualities important? They are important because each quality represents a direct conflict against the sterilization (oh, I meant to say professional etiquette) within the ivory towers. The intersection of qualities has often resolved in a positionality reminiscent of Wocquant’s articulation of marginality. This has salience because as Wocquant notes (specific to urbanized areas), marginality is not experienced the same everywhere. Thus, it should be duly noted the situational context from which this piece arose.

I have attended a Division 1 SEC university in the southeastern United States for the past several years. I was mentally prepared for daily racial microaggressions such as when a white professor, studying disparities, proclaims in a public health course that “Tuskegee wasn’t about race? It was about class?!?” This “preparation” nonetheless minimized a constant burning at my soul physiologically and mentally.

However, I was not in any form or fashion prepared when a Black professor called my cell phone one weekend.  A response to my rightfully questioning authorship on a published manuscript.  The conversation proceed with, “Who the *uck do you think you are?  Don’t you know I could *uck your career up?”  The light bulb started warming, but wasn’t all the way on.  The light bulb finally came on when a Black administrator told me, “oh no we don’t want this information to get out because [professor so and so] brings <insert famous politician> yearly to this university.”  At that point it became clear, I was stuck in a crab barrel that promoted docility, unwarranted politics of respectability, and a selling of one’s soul.

My Brain is Larger Than Yours

The intellectual sizing up that accompanies life in the academy has often frustrated me beyond explanation.  This frustration is amplified when it comes from the hands of those in which my hands mirror.  It hasn’t become quite clear as to why such specific hazing occurs. However, why can’t I just be intelligent, passionate about learning, enjoy answering complex questions, read a lot and that be ok….isn’t this a place of “higher learning”?  I’ve often speculated that academic hazing stems from hazing experienced by so many Black undergraduates as they’ve sought brotherhood/sisterhood in fraternal organizations and have made it to glory as a professor.  A true crossing of the burning sands of a sort.

Yet this framing seems insufficient or at best a minimizing lens or an oversimplification. Could it be internalized racism which is rooted in historical experiences of enslavement and beyond chattel slavery? Could it be heterosexism and homophobia that deems my sexualized body dispensable among those that have similar skin tones because I am not quite a man but yet too much a feminine being? Is it because my outspoken nature is reminiscent of a “snap queen” or an “angry Black woman”? Might it be an attempt to cope with constant messages of inferiority where hazing one “less” privileged becomes necessary? Could it possibly be insecurity because of how an intersectional world experience manifests in my “thinking outside the box”? Or quite possible, academic hazing could just be internalized hatred for something someone represents for which others don’t want to be reminded of (the naivety of intellectual curiosity). I don’t have definitive conclusions to these puzzling questions, but I do have truth in being the recipient of their outcomes.  My questions aren’t a futile attempt to argue from the margins without recognizing the center.

So What Have I Learned? (Here’s the Takeaway):

  • Arm thy self! A desire to belong cannot, and should not, compromise your quality of life, emotional well-being, intellectual interests, passions beyond the sanitized walls of the academy, nor deny aspects that make oneself unique. This requires maturity in emotional intelligence, willingness to unveil masks, and ally building.
  • Protect thy self! Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy for an unwillingness to see truth. When situational contexts become clearly detrimental find meaningful ways to exit stage left. This could mean merely throwing the deuces; however, remember the last component of the previous tip. Without ally building it can be challenging to ‘exit stage left’ but with allies you can often find some peace. Also, naivety has to be thrown out the window. Just because someone talks like a duck, looks like a duck, doesn’t always mean they walk like a duck!
  • Love thy self! This cannot be iterated enough. Striking a balance in life while pursuing graduate studies can be difficult, yet you must force yourself. Find healthy (however you define) ways to disengage from academic life without jeopardizing your goals. Life isn’t always about doing; sometimes peace can be found in mindless nothingness.
  • Know thy self! When you’ve had enough, allow yourself to find the coping strategy that works for you. Often this is when you learn who is part of your “community” because those who are a true social support will be understanding. On “community”: immediately locating this is vital for success in academia. If you cannot find proximal “community” develop some form of “community” that provides you shade and cover from the day-to-day psychological distresses of the academy.
  • Challenge thy self! In the face of adversity do not, I repeat, do not run from it. Your feet will quickly become tired. Life in general can place you in uncomfortable situations and gaining consciousness of privilege may lead to heightened sensitivity. This is totally fine, just manage. If you feel there is a need for righteous anger, display it with your head held high, yet be open for change if necessary.

This post is an expression of me taking my own advice in challenging myself for which the following quote is truth of a new awakening.

“The Black [insert Latino] homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The “chosen‟ history. But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home.”
Essex Hemphill, “Loyalty” (1992)

 

Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia By Victor Ray

victor rayVictor Ray is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Duke University. He will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall. His research is on organizational responses to racial and gender discrimination. You can follow Victor on Twitter at @victorerikray

Below, Victor reflects on his frustration with his department’s award-winning level of diversity, at least on paper, that contradicts the otherwise exclusive department climate, norms, and practices.

My department just won the inaugural Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence, an award that is meant to reward the department for “extraordinary achievements” in promoting diversity in its graduate student body.  I was surprised by the news, as my experiences as a student of color in this department have been less than inclusive and other than excellent. Although students of color are indeed admitted to the graduate program, and even make it through to the PhD, they may still be psychologically scarred in the process. In fact, graduate students in nominally diverse departments can experience a backlash against diversity, as professors and students may be bothered by rising numbers of minorities. We are, after all, taking “their” resources.

I thought that the awarding of this “honor” would be a good time to write about the contradictions between symbolic inclusion and forms of de facto exclusion.  Awards like these only serve to reward organizations for their nominal commitment to a vague conception of diversity, without actually encouraging any improvement in the institutional treatment of people of color.

Although students of color were surprised just to hear the news of the award, the process got even more farcical when my department put up an announcement on its website celebrating the award.  The photo next to the announcement is a generic stock photo of “diverse business people” that turns up on the first page of a Google search for “diversity.” This photo was used because the classes are so overwhelmingly white that they couldn’t use a photo of an actual classroom to show racial diversity.  Of course, the response to this was typical of the many schools that suffer from this dilemma: they asked the folks of color to provide a photo or congregate for a photo-shoot.  We refused, deciding collectively that the stock photo is a better representation of the empty type of diversity these awards celebrate.

Diversity Matters

I want to emphasize that the department itself has done little to create or support a diverse environment.  Organizations don’t make themselves more diverse out of benevolence—they are pushed.  Students of color and white allies within the department have fought for years to get more classes on race and ethnicity and faculty hires of color (with little success).  We’ve written letters, spoken with deans and department chairs, and served on hiring committees.  There is considerable cost to this type of organizing, in time not spent on schoolwork, in the psychological tax of tokenism, and in risking the label of racial militancy, all of which affect subsequent employment opportunities.  These requests for substantive changes have largely been met with the typical excuses that universities make—pipeline issues, a lack of “qualified” scholars of color (whereas white mediocrity goes unremarked upon), budget shortfalls, etc.

As a stopgap means of providing more support for race scholarship, students of color also organized a race workshop, providing a space for students, postdocs, and professors from across the campus and from other institutions.  The majority of white faculty in my department rarely attends this workshop—but this award gives them credit that work.  Further, faculty members get angry that students have the audacity to organize.  Essentially, for pointing out that there is a problem with racial inequality, you become the problem.  You have, after all, made (white) power uncomfortable.  The racial etiquette of our “colorblind” era means you’re rude for talking about such things.

While the award was supposed to take curriculum into account, this is also an area that is significantly lacking.  The normative environment of graduate school is white and male.  White men often teach the core courses in sociology programs (Theory, Stats, Methods).  Their job is to socialize you into “the center” of the discipline; a center that historically and presently contains few (fully acknowledged) people of color.  These men have variable levels of hostility towards race work: for instance, I was told in my theory class that if we wanted to learn about racial theory, we should go study with the department’s one black male professor.  The simple fact that they are often the gatekeepers of the discipline sends a symbolic message.   The problem with this sort of diversity is we are only accepted on their terms.

Beyond the symbolic messages of these gatekeepers and the curriculum they prioritize, interactions with white professors hostile to race scholarship can silence students.1  For instance, on the first day of a seminar, there was an intense discussion on the “culture of poverty” thesis and Black families.  The professor and I were on opposite sides of this debate. I left the class feeling exhilarated—we had had an excellent civil exchange (or so I thought), with both of us defending our positions with citations.  An hour after the class, I got an email from the prof asking me to come to his office.  Upon arrival, he discussed our debate through a host of racist tropes, telling me I was hostile, angry, threatening, and subjective in evaluating evidence.  He told me I needed to moderate my tone. (He, of course, had only been objective and dispassionate while using the same tone in the discussion.) He had all the power in the situation, and I was effectively silenced.  Of course, harassment proceedings exist to allegedly remedy this type of behavior, but research shows reporting superiors can end careers.  The diversity we add to the department is supposed to be seen, not heard.

As a very light-skinned black man, I realize that I do not experience the overt racism of, say, being racially profiled by campus police or asked regularly if I am a student, experiences that effect darker-skinned men and women all too often. That being said, contrary to some rather un-reflexive commentary on the experiences of light-skinned people of color elsewhere, being light doesn’t mean you don’t experience racism.  Over the past seven years, professors have told me that I only received competitive grants and fellowships because of affirmative action; that my Afro didn’t look scholarly; that the graduate student applicant pool didn’t include any qualified blacks; and that “critical” race work wasn’t objective.2  These types of not-so-subtle micro-aggressions do not harm a department’s numbers on recruitment and only harm retention rates if they become so unbearable that students drop out.

Undoubtedly, my department has a good record on admitting racial minorities comparative to similarly ranked programs.  And while the numbers aren’t necessarily lying, by equating population with power, they are obscuring the daily lives of graduate students of color in the program.  If this award were granted solely on the racial climate, we wouldn’t deserve it.  Finally, I fear awards like this end up justifying inaction on a department’s problems.  People can point to the award as recognition for a job well done, and oppose movement towards racial equity.  Maybe giving out these awards, without specific benchmarks for departments to achieve, is not such a good idea.

__________

Notes:

1 Although I can’t speak for the other students of color in the department, many of them have spoken to me privately about similar micro and macro aggressions.  And some have even left graduate school because of what they considered a climate of racial animus.

2 I personally don’t think of myself as all that critical or militant, not because my scholarship supports the status quo, but because I don’t think there is anything all that critical about saying, for instance, that the United States is founded and continues to thrive on racism.  This is simply true.

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.

“Maybe You’re Overreacting…?” — On Emotional Control

Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought.  Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations.  Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world.  (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”)  However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work.  For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding.  And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).

It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are regulated and used that reflect inequality.  I became interested in the sociology of emotions through my introduction to Arlie Hochschild‘s book, The Managed Heart – a study of the emotional labor of (women) flight attendants and the wear it has on their health and well-being.  In particular, when forcing a positive, nurturing emotion for so long, the flight attendants in her study noted feeling disconnected from their authentic emotions.  I can also relate to the idea of emotion work as a means of navigating oppression (i.e., avoiding discrimination and violence) in Doug Schrock‘s research on transwomen.

Controlling Emotions

I am also interested in, and particularly sensitive to, the seemingly innocent ways in which we attempt to control others’ emotions.  “Boys don’t cry.”  “Stop your whining.”  “Must be PMS.  Amiright?!”  “Calm down.”  “He’s an angry Black man.”  Some of these requests reflect good intentions.  Some are simply demands to stop emoting in a certain way.  Whatever the intention, these are attempts to control another person.  But, I worry that the burden of emotional control — or being emotionally controlled, I should say — falls too often on marginalized people.  In fact, certain emotions are seen as particularly threatening or inappropriate because of one’s social location.

It almost seems “angry Black” is redundant based on the way that Black people are criticized for presumably publicly expressing anger — anger that would be seen as understandable in a white person.  It also seems that anger is read no matter one’s actual internal emotional state and one’s behavior or outward expression of emotion.  So, to avoid the penalties of being read as angry and Black, some have to work even harder to seem deferential friendly.

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I would argue that at the heart of this desire to control marginalized individuals’ emotions is an unwillingness to acknowledge and appreciate their experiences.  The best example of this is the seemingly concerned and innocent question, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  This question suggests that your way of responding to an event or condition exceeds what is seen as appropriate.  The flaw, however, is typically in the inquirer’s underestimation of how intense the situation is — and how frequently it occurs.

Let me give a specific example.  Well, none come to mind because it has happened repeatedly in my life.  In relaying that I feel upset after I have heard something so offensive, or even been victimized by discrimination, to a trusted friend or colleague, I have been asked, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  Now that I reflect on the question, it is unclear whether the inquirer is suggesting my perception of the event is inaccurate or my emotional response is inappropriate — it is probably both.  The question sets me off because I do not feel the inquirer believes my perception of my own experiences, and has attempted to control my emotional responses to them.

It is insult to injury.

The most frustrating piece is that the question of overreacting presumes that the reaction is to an isolated incident.  “So, he accidentally alluded that whites are American and people of color are not.  I am sure he…” blah blah blah, benefit of the doubt.  Because, you know, we are uncomfortable assuming someone is a bigot or fails to acknowledge their privilege, even when their behavior says otherwise.  In reality for the oppressed person, these seemingly minor expressions of prejudice or discriminatory acts open up the wound from a lifetime of exposure to this kind of crap.  It is not just that one racist asshole — it is yet another reminder that I will forever encounter racist assholes, who are then given the benefit of the doubt, while I am told an appropriate way to emote (if I am allowed to at all).

As these events add up, and the efforts to control your response add up, the larger picture becomes one of an oppressed life with nothing less than a smile on your face.  You do not have the right to be upset about your oppressed status.  If you are angry that you are oppressed, and that anger is understood by the oppressor, that oppression is no longer justifiable.  We can longer reference happy Black slaves, and then miserable freed Blacks.  We would not be able to justify the racism-motivated opposition President Obama has faced since the beginning of his presidency if we understood and appreciated his anger; so, we must undercut him by alluding to angry Black men.

Concluding Thoughts

Do me a favor.  Strike “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” from your vocabulary.  Never string those words together when someone has confided in you about their experiences — even beyond the examples above related to discrimination and prejudice.  Particularly for marginalized people, we have already replayed the event in our heads a few times before naming it as unfair, discrimination, or at least worth of an upset response.  We already have weighed the possibility of being dismissed or told that we are overreacting or simply hypersensitive before telling another soul.

Try, instead, telling someone you believe them (if you do).  And, even if you do not, affirm their right to emote however feels right to their experiences.  If you cannot muster that, just listen.  Be just that one person who does not demand that an upset person justify to you that they experienced what they experienced and are properly responding to those experiences.

Find Your Own Pocket Of Protection In Academia

It is too easy to look back on stupid things I said, did, or thought in my youth.  But, at times, I can look into my past with pleasant surprise regarding a thought or action.  “Wow — how did I know what the heck I was talking about then?”  Since I started the countdown to finishing my PhD around this time last year, I have been reflecting a lot on my college years.  Maybe I am looking back to compare my experiences as a college student to what I imagine my students experience.  There is also a bit of nostalgia because — well — graduate school was just a different beast.  Related to that aside, I also find myself reflecting on the past because I actually knew things before grad school (despite the implicit messages I received)!

A Culture Of Opposition

One memory that, now, looking back surprises me is giving advice on navigating what I called a “culture of opposition” in academia.  As a graduating senior, having served as president of the student activities group that year, I was invited to give parting advice to incoming student leaders.  In planning events on campus, involvement in other organizations, and advocating for greater services for LGBT students on campus, I had amassed experience in working with students, staff, faculty, and administration.  Through my experiences, it seemed you could assume most people were either not interested or invested in your efforts, and a few even took an extra step to get in your way.  So, while attempting not to be a pessimist, I emphasized that one should not be naive about others’ willingness to support you.

April 2007, UMBC

April 2007, UMBC

A Pocket Of Opportunity

In the picture above, you can see the poster I created as a visual aid for my advice to incoming student leaders.  That is me on the right, going through my South Pole clothing phase.  The ominous mass on the outside is the aforementioned “culture of opposition.”  I recall seeing a shocked face on one staff member’s face when I misspoke, saying “culture of oppression.”  (I thought it was funny.)

On the inside of the circle, in the center, is what I referred to as a “pocket of opportunity.”  I made an attempt to draw a pants pocket that is releasing little hearts into the air.  For me, this pocket was student life.  The fellow students with whom I worked, but more so student affairs staff, offered a safe, encouraging space that provided what felt like limitless opportunities for me to pursue my passions.  They, along with a few faculty and administrators, supported me in my efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBT students.  Within an otherwise disinterested and, at times, oppositional culture on campus, I found this small pocket of protection, encouragement, and support.

Find Your Own Pocket

I am reemphasizing a (provocative) point I made before: we, as marginalized people, do ourselves a disservice by buying into the fairytale of academia as a safe, inclusive, and equal place.  Despite my wisdom about the “culture of opposition” as a graduating senior, I made the mistake of assuming the best about academia as I entered graduate school.  And, I embarrassed to admit I did so again as I started as a professor (albeit to a lesser extent).  There is no place that I can think of that will automatically be “home” for me, that will automatically be welcoming and encouraging for people like me.

In order to survive and thrive, we have to find our own pocket of protection/opportunity/support.  Unfortunately, I do not have advice beyond knowing that we have to search, for it is not a given for marginalized individuals.  I cannot say that I have readily known where to look, but it became clear that I had to look for allies, mentors, sponsors, and supportive communities.  This has meant broadening my search beyond my own cohort, department, university — and, outside of academia.

Hate is Not a Richmond Value

Safe Zone

Yesterday, I shared two essays to share my own perspective on the controversy at my university.  In 2012, one of the University of Richmond’s board of trustees members, Paul Queally, participated in an induction ceremony for an honor society for very wealthy people (Kappa Beta Phi).  His comments, including sexist and homophobic jokes, have come to light in a book by Kevin Roose, which Roose wrote about in New York Magazine last week.  Many students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni were left underwhelmed by the slow and limited response from the university, board of trustees, and Queally himself.

As a new queer professor at Richmond, I felt it important to speak out — not simply to criticize Queally, or the underwhelming response from the university, but also to make clear these values do not reflect the university community I have joined.  By that, I mean this is surprising considering what I have seen at the university in my short time on the faculty, and that I will work to ensure that the university exhibits a commitment to inclusivity in actions, not just words.  The links are below.

  1. Hate is not a Richmond Value,The Collegian (U Richmond’s student newspaper)
  2. Hate isn’t a University Value,” Inside Higher Ed