“Prove It”: A Note On Tough Love

Prove it

As a professor, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I had earned a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) my second semester in college — a bit lower than the 3.1 of my first semester.  I was placed on academic probation in my scholarship program, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, because of my poor academic performance.  I also had a bad attitude to match my bad grades.  Initially, I fell in love with the Meyerhoff program, which is why I chose to go to UMBC over the liberal arts colleges I so badly wanted to attend.  But, my first year was somewhat of a disaster because I had recently come out (and was dealing with the resultant family drama) and was unhappy with my major (math).

I could have been — and probably should have been — kicked out of the Meyerhoff program.  I met with my advisor Anika Green — then-assistant director of the Meyerhoff program — about my performance thus far in college.  I swore to her I would change, that my grades would improve because I would be more focused.  Ms. Green (as I knew her then) did not smile and say, “oh, of course you will!”  She did not coddle me.  Frankly, she did not seem to buy my excuses for my crappy grades.  She simply demanded: “Prove it.”  Wow, ok.

That summer, instead of working or interning, I took a few classes that would count toward general requirements.  I suppose there was something calmer about the summer, which allowed me to buckle down and focus.  I earned As in all four of those classes.  My parents rewarded my hardwork by buying me a new bike.  One sunny afternoon, I gleefully rode my new bike around campus.  I happened to see Ms. Green leaving her office.  I stopped to say hello and show off my new bike so I could tell her the good news.  I cannot remember her response, but it was not one of celebration.  In essence, it seemed as though she was unmoved by that summer’s 4.0 GPA because I should have been getting As.  Why reward what is expected?  I was disappointed that she was not happier for me — something I was accustomed to with my parents (as an only child).

For the fall of my sophomore year, I retook a critical course for my major in which I earned a C, along with other general required classes.  I could have taken more electives for my major in math, but was already beginning to doubt that I would keep the major.  The tricky matter was finding a new major, for leaving the STEM fields meant leaving the Meyerhoff program and giving up the full scholarship.  This, unsurprisingly, was a major source of conflict with my parents.  They made clear that if I decided to give up a free ride that they would not be able to fully support me.  I applied for a few external scholarships, but set my sights on leaving in hopes that I would be awarded a scholarship that was not specific to a particular major.  Frankly, the misery to that point was reason enough to take the risk.

So, I marched my 19-year-old self, with only a few hundred dollars to my name, to the Meyerhoff office to announce I was leaving the program.  Mr. LaMont Toliver — the program’s director, who sadly passed in 2012 — encouraged me to consider an interdisciplinary major that brought together sociology and statistics as a way to stay while also pursuing my interest in social science.  That was not enough for me.  So, I stood firm in my decision to leave.  I am so fortunate that Mr. Toliver (as I knew him) provided the scholarships office with strong recommendation to award me a full scholarship from the university.  I wish he were still living today so that I could express my deepest gratitude.  Thereafter, I double majored in Sociology and Psychology with a certificate in Women’s Studies — earning As in all but one of my classes for the rest of college.

A Note On Tough Love

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that I probably should have been kicked out of the Meyerhoff program.  But, even with low grades, an occasional bad attitude, and clear signs that I was not committed to my major in math, Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver did not give up on me.  They supported me — but did not coddle me — because I was struggling in school (and, to some extent, life).  As a part of that support, they did not accept excuses for failure nor putting in anything short of 110% of one’s efforts and attention.

This kind of tough love helped to propel me as a scholar and activist.  Initially, it forced me to stop making excuses and to begin taking responsibility for my own education.  To date, I am still uncertain whether Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver and other program staff knew that that would mean finally realizing my passion was outside of the scope of Meyerhoff program (i.e., STEM fields).  Either way, I was forced to examine the real sources of my misery and poor academic performance.  I needed to change my major, resolve family struggles, and see a therapist to work internally.  After my 1.5 years in the Meyerhoff program, and even well beyond college, I have been aided by this early tough love to effectively navigate subsequent challenges and difficult decisions.

Why “Tough Love”?

Finally, I want to explain my use of the term “tough love.”  I feel I have made the tough aspect clear in this post.  But, what about “love”?  Some may think it strange to suggest that these mentors love me or other students.  We associate love with intimate and romantic relationships, which, in turn, we don’t associate with relationships in professional and educational spaces.  We respect that teachers love their students, but raise red flags if they love a particular individual student.

By love, I do mean that Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver loved me, as a student and mentee, in some ways like they would love their own child, or maybe a nephew.  I feel there is a loose familial connection with members of one’s own minority group, no matter the individual connection.  These mentors, I suspect, feel a sense of responsibility and care for any student of color because of the history and contemporary practice of racism in higher education.  (Indeed, these particular mentors worked for a minority scholarship program!)  Their love for me was tough because they realized I had to perform exceedingly well as a student to overcome racial bias and discrimination; also, this “tough love” was unwavering because they recognized that students’ failures may be the direct product of it, as well.

I have had other professors, mentors, and advisors that have been tough, but who did/do not love me as a student/mentee.  Their support can be easily lost if I fail, with little offer to understand my failures in the context of the barriers I face as a brown queer scholar.  It may be tough, but it is a kind of toughness that simply feels mean-spirited, or elitist, or even offensive because there is no deeper, unwavering concern about my well-being or success nor sense of responsibility for me.  US higher education, like the rest of the country, is home to an individualistic mentality.  Too often, instructors give up on struggling and/or failing students — the very ones who actually need more support to survive and thrive.  There is much more tough disdain or lack of sympathy than there is tough love.

I am so grateful to have Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver as tough-loving mentors.  Because of them, I am now able to start dolling out tough love to my own students and mentees.  I cannot imagine any other effective approach to support them.

“Why I’m Not Waiting For Tenure To Change The World…”

Kweder photoMichelle Kweder, a PhD student in Business Administration, is a critical management scholar who occasionally blogs at bricolage.  Below, Michelle has shared her blog declaration to work for change today rather than waiting for the promised “freedom” of tenure.

Check out her full bio here and follow her on Twitter.

Why I’m Not Waiting For Tenure To Change The World

In less than a week, I’ll be back on campus.  Or, more accurately, on one of the three different campuses where I’ve talked my way into classes.  Mostly, when I think about it, I feel stressed out.

Of course, the summer just wasn’t long enough.  I didn’t have enough fun, didn’t do enough scholarly work, didn’t do enough paid consulting work, and failed to put in enough volunteer hours for issues I care about.  House projects remain undone.  And, I’m still not up to running a 5K.  (And, I never did just take a day to smoke pot and watch YouTube kitten videos. I did think about it.)

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to be happy this year — and, through my doctoral program in general.  Finding Grollman’s My 7-Year Experiment (inspired by Nagpal’s Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc) opened my eyes and made me realize that I had my own guidelines to write and something to say about the doctoral student experience for those of us who live on and theorize from the margins.

So, here are my own guidelines based on the work of Grollman and Nagpal:

  1. The goal is to change the world.  Getting a phd is a task with many doable subtasks.
  2. I will be more selective about the advice I take.
  3. I will (finally) create a “feel good” folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person that I can be.
  6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.
  7.  I will have fun now.

1.  The goal is to change the world.  Getting a PhD is a task with many doable subtasks.  

So, this first guideline is my only strong departure from Grollman and Nagpal.  Both have a different goal — surviving the pre-tenure years.  But Grollman wrote something that really made me sit up:  “My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.” I’m 43 and don’t have time to wait for the PhD to liberate me and give me a voice.

Before entering my doctoral program, I was a self-employed consultant working with public sector and nonprofit organizations.  I had gotten to the point where I could work 11 months a year, not worry about marketing, be a bit picky about my clients, and consistently include one pro-bono client in portfolio.  When approached by a potential client with a project, I would ask the following questions:

  • Am I the right person to do this?
  • Is it good for me?  (Which really meant, do I have the capacity to do this and still be sane?)
  • Will it change the world?

So, no surprise, my first year was filled with inner conflict.  My choices had been largely taken away from me and the faculty were strangely transparent about “socializing” us into the world of academia.  No longer could I reject tasks that I thought weren’t going to bring about social justice.  (With that said, I love learning and it was and continues to remain a privilege to be paid to learn; I really hadn’t “worked” so few hours since I was 15.)

Being in a college of management (even a progressive college with a smattering of critical sociologists), means that I was surrounded by driven academics including a few dominant (male) voices who have a Tayloristic approach to publishing; and, as is the case for many in academic, they are evangelical about making the incoming doctoral students believe that their way is the right and only way.

To be fair, there are a few more balanced folks in the department. The most simpatico are great classroom teachers, care deeply about their students, and have the goal of producing meaningful articles about social change both inside of and outside of the academic space.  However, few seem to share my deep passion for bringing about radical action directly through their writing and teaching.

So I have decided to go back to what worked for me as a consultant.  The first priority becomes changing the world.  There will be times when I have academic “tasks” that don’t fit the goal.  I’m a good, fast worker capable of doing the “tasks.” (Yes, I’m in GTD recovery.)  From now on the “tasks”  go on a list and get done well, quickly, and without worry.  Learning and deep understanding are a top priority; satisfying the requirements of the rewards system will happen.   I need to go back to focusing on the urgent concerns concerns of the world — racial, gender, economic, and social justice.

2.  I will be more selective about the advice I take.

I’m not quite in the same place as Grollman when he writes:  “I stopped taking advice, especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations.”  But I’m almost there.

Some of the advice I got before and during my first year caused me to (unnecessarily and repeatedly) bang my head against my desk.  Most of the bad advice came from folks with more privilege and less life experience than I have.  Some of it was just unrealistic — (e.g. never say “no” because you are a doctoral student and need to take advantage of every opportunity, build all of the relationships that you can, etc.)  Some of it was coming from a place of fear about their own desires for socially-defined success (i.e. tenure).  Some of it was just anti-intellectual; multiple faculty advised us to deal with the workload by skimming the reading assignments.  (Really?  I count on faculty to curate our experience and assume that if it is on their syllabus that it is relevant and important.)  So this year, I better know where to tune in and where to tune out.  And, as important, I’ll be better at asking from help from folks I trust to understand me and the change-the-world goal.

3.  I will (finally) create a “feel good” folder.

I was told to do this in business school.  This “task” is going on the list and getting done NOW!  Thank you notes from clients, my program acceptance letter, the A+ paper I wrote first semester, my first conference paper acceptance => in the “feel good” folder.

4.  I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.

This is probably the hardest for me.  I kept a general schedule of Monday through Saturday, 9-6ish last year.  But, I often worked more.  I’ve always worked 6 days a week including two nonprofit leadership positions where I was on a beeper 24/7.  (But again, perspective.  Responding to an emergency at a domestic violence shelter is much different than meeting a R&R deadline.)  Overworking is a hard habit to break but I’m going to do my best to contain my work to M-F, 9-6ish this year.

5.  I try to be the best “whole” person that I can be.

I find what Grollman says about appearance so liberating:  “This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation. ”  (I know some of my friends must be thinking: “if last year involved some effort, what are we in for now!”)  If one thing business school teaches you, it is to “manage your self-presentation.”  As I often say, we’re trained to look “straight but not available.”  Somewhere in this, I’ve lost myself.  Yep, I’m 43 and want to be “appropriate” (maybe) but I also want primary-colored hair.  I’ll spend some time thinking (but not worrying) about this.

And, when it is easy to do and gets the job done, I’ll do it with my eyes wide open. A quick Prezi presentation can sometimes get a more conservative faculty member to pay attention to my more radical agenda.  I’ll reluctantly “use the master’s tools” if I feel it can meet the change-the-world goal.

The other “whole” person part for me has to do with spending meaningful time in the  non-academic world — with activists, at protests, with white folks who care about doing anti-racist work, in low-income communities, with queers, and in communities of color.  I’m lucky to be at a public university that truly reflects the diversity of Boston — but it still isn’t enough for me.  I had a great conversation this summer with a practitioner friend about an essay I’m formulating.  A long time social justice activist has agreed to “keep me honest” while I embark on this career transition.

The third component of the “whole me” involves travel.  Travel shakes up my thinking in a way that is unsettling and productive.  I truly feel alive when I am out of my comfort zone struggling to navigate a community that is not my own.  I want to better understand how travel shapes my thinking.  In order to do that, I need to, well, travel.

6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.

For what I lack in a bio family, I make up for in a vibrant circle of incredibly supportive friends.  I have them and I’m going to spend time with them.  (My partner is among the best of those friends.)   And, I’m going to spend face-to-face, uninterrupted, cell-phone-turned-off time with them.

I’ve also started to make some great new friends.  Although I won’t start writing my dissertation for a year, I already have an interdisciplinary dissertation writing group of lively feminists.  Perhaps assembling this group is the smartest thing I’ve done over the past few months.  I am looking forward to our 8am morning meetings (yikes!) and getting to know each of them better.

7.  I will have fun now.  

I live in a great city and have great friends.  Enough said.

“Cultivating Allies As A Woman of Color in Academia” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class. Below, Dr. Whitaker provides advice for seeking allies in academia, particularly for women of color.  Be sure to check out the other great guest blog posts by Dr. Whitaker.

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Cultivating Allies as a Woman of Color in Academia

Manya WhitakerI tried my best to not comment on the pseudo Harlem Shake crap that is all the rage right now, but since students at my college filmed a video of themselves engaging in that nonsense, and said video went viral, this issue has become personal. It has become all the more personal because while I can excuse the students for participating in cultural mockery and theft (hey — they are 20, they do not know), I cannot excuse my colleagues. Since so many others have taken the time to breakdown the History of the Harlem Shake, and to write articles about cultural misappropriation (here, here, and here) I feel no need to go down that path.

Instead, I want to discuss allyhood in academia and how as a female junior faculty member of color, I must identify allies…and those who would be betray me with a click of the mouse.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am reading Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. There is a section in the book about forming networks of allies in the Academy. Nancy Cantor wrote the introduction for that section and states ‘It’s both difficult and important that women who are white—the relatively privileged ones who have been the primary beneficiaries of feminism—perceive, acknowledge, and then act against the additional forms of discrimination experienced by women of color without feeling defensive’ (pg. 222). I flagged this sentence when I first read this chapter weeks ago and more now than then, I feel this is an important point. So this is where I shall begin my tale of betrayal at a small liberal arts college.

Because our students’ video was such a hit, the faculty thought it would be ‘fun’ to film our own 30 second video at the next faculty meeting. Actually, two faculty members came up with this idea and emailed the rest of the faculty with the suggestion. Now, upon receiving this email I was astounded. I was astounded not because this idea emerged—it was inevitable that someone would hop on this train to nowhere. No, I was stunned because of who made the suggestion. The people who made the suggestion would never be people I’d think would support such nonsense. Both of these people are faculty who—whether they feel this way or not—occupy marginalized spaces on campus. Though both senior faculty members, one is openly homosexual and the other is of Asian descent. The latter specifically researches issues pertinent to race, so her complicity felt like a slap in the face. After reading the email I said aloud to myself ‘is she serious?’ My immediate emotional experience cannot be described as anything other than feelings of betrayal laced in incredulity. This quickly turned to anger.

A close friend and African American colleague contacted me about this issue to formulate a plan for how we were going to respond if in fact the faculty decided to film this video. During that conversation, we thought about who else was ‘down for the cause’ and could only come up with two nonwhite faculty members. While we both wished a senior faculty member was not away on sabbatical because she certainly would’ve publicly allied herself with us, we were stunned that between two of us, we could not identify more people who would stand up and fight with us. At the end of the convo, I sadly said ‘wow…I thought we had more allies.’

Though a few minutes after the aforementioned conversation, the Asian faculty member emailed to say maybe we shouldn’t do it because after quick research, filming such a video may have ‘unintended consequences’, I couldn’t help but continue to be enraged because a) this idea emerged in the first place, and b) it could be just as easily quelled without a dialogue between affected parties.

The ‘settling’ of this issue was devoid of critical thought or open conversation. The words race, misappropriation, cultural theft, black, misidentification, or history were never mentioned. All we got was a two sentence email cloaked in light hearted liberal arts humor with a slight acquiescence that yes, perhaps this idea was not the best because they may perceive unintentional harm. The word ‘unintentional’ is laced with blame on the others and drenched with self excuse. By not discussing it, or even opening it up for discussion, the issue was deemed unworthy of discussion. That email was colorblind, perspectiveless, ahistorical, and riddled with power. Because she decided that she did not want to discuss it, the issue was closed. What of us who are still upset? Still offended? Still full of words we have been barred from sharing because the prefix to your title outranks the prefix to mine?

No. This does not feel like allyhood.

“By your powers combined…I am Captain Planet!” Hehe..I think of this when I think of allies.

I have learned a few things. First, friendship and respect do not equate allyhood. While mentally scrolling through my list of friends for possible allies it became clear that few people would sacrifice their reputation or professional relationships for the greater good (perhaps because they do not view it as ‘greater’ or ‘good’). Few people can find the courage and fortitude to do more than softly agree behind closed doors. When it comes time to stand up publicly and declare an alliance, most friends will hold their heads down while avoiding eye contact (if they are not in fact, already out of the door). They do not want to look me in my eyes and see the result of their abandonment. And I get it. It’s hard to do what you know is right when you don’t feel anything was wrong.

A chapter in Presumed Incompetent written by Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman outlines what it takes for people to truly be considered allies when it comes to issues of race. They describe the necessity of color insight—the recognition that a racial status quo exists in which society attributes race to each member—to battle the pervasiveness of colorblindness. Ignoring issues of race under the guise of equality does nothing but create a space in which racism and oppression can grow unchecked, only emerging when people can no longer avoid discussing the black, brown, yellow, or red elephant in the room.

They also borrow from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1994) discussion of perspectivelessness—the adoption of the “neutral” white norm as the default for laws, values, and behaviors. I especially believe this construct is constantly at play in racialized environments because it empowers people to not think about how their behaviors and words affect others. It is as if they believe ‘if most people are fine with it, then what’s the big deal?’

Yes, it seems to me as if colorblindness precedes, or perhaps bolsters, the existence of perspectivelessness. It is easy to ignore others when you refuse to accept that no, everyone is not like me and everyone is not treated as I am treated. I am especially concerned with the fact that the homogenous climate of academia facilitates (and sometimes encourages) the silencing of racial discourse. Why is it that one woman of color was allowed to represent the collective voices of ethnic minorities? Why didn’t a white colleague challenge her self-assumed position as Speaker of the [Colored] House? Most of all, why were we faculty members who disagreed with her narrative forced to plot and plan in secret instead of being given the space and opportunity to express our views publicly? The fallacy of community in academia made certain that she felt comfortable not having to think about how her endorsement of a racialized behavior would be perceived by white colleagues. She is tenured, she is well respected on campus, and she is Asian. So of course she has the experience, the knowledge, and the right to suggest such an idea. Because if she thinks it’s ok, and she is Asian, then it must be ok, right?

I am certain she never intended to speak on behalf of all ethnic minorities, but the reality is that many believe in the singular experience of minorities. Why didn’t she and other faculty in support of this video research the topic before going public with it? If we who are scholars trained at top notch institutions, national award recipients, professors at a tier 1 college do not feel the need to investigate the origins and implications of pop cultural trends, the future of academia is bleak.

We in academia are far from what Susan Sturm (2006) calls an ‘architecture of inclusion’ because we do not acknowledge what it takes for others to be included. It takes more than a shared smile in the hallway, laughs over lunch, invitations to personal events, and overlapping research interests to build inclusivity. As Nancy Cantor states, it takes ‘a culture of collaboration where issues of intersectionality can be addressed. Inclusion requires justice and due process. It also needs the give and take of social support, of flexibility of models and respect for individual and group differences…’. I would add that inclusion requires true allyhood—loud, proud, public allegiance across diverse people. Allied relationships are built upon shared knowledge, even if there aren’t shared experiences. Most importantly, allyhood, and by default, inclusion are not ephemeral weak constructs easily undermined by threats of ostracization or promises of promotion. Allies are people to whom we can turn for support even when, no—especially when—the professional turns personal.

Beyond Allies: A Call For Supportive Academic Communities

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

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

The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Examples

Stop Saying “Mulatto”!

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

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

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

National Coming Out Day

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

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

Staff And Faculty Allies In College

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

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

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

A Call For Allies In Academia

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

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

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

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

Bystander Intervention

Beyond Allies: A Bystander Intervention Approach

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

Listen With Respect And An Open-Mind

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

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

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

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

Speak Up And Out, Often

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

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

Act, When Appropriate

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

A few additional resources:

What If Graduate Programs Empowered Their Students?

Grad_school

Lately, I have been pondering about what graduate school should have been.  Sure, I am far enough removed from that awful chapter of my life.  I have taken on bigger battles than I could have ever envisioned as a grad student.  But, to the extent that my first semester as a tenure-track professor has been fucking miserable challenging, I am increasingly aware of where my graduate training failed me for this job.

Here are the questions that have crossed my mind.  Please keep in mind that, even while speaking generally, these questions are informed by my own experiences and perspective.

  • What if graduate training programs empowered their students?  That is, rather than slowly and systematically tearing down their self-esteem and self-worth?
  • What if graduate training programs encouraged students to speak up, not shut up?
  • What if graduate training programs encouraged students to keep their heads up, not down?
  • What if grad students were encouraged to make a difference, rather than deradicalized or made to feel guilty for wanting to serve the(ir) community?
  • What if grad programs prepared students for careers at research-intensive universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, private and public schools?  Tenure-track positions and non-tenure-track positions?  And, jobs outside of academia?  Even if all of these cannot be offered to all students, what about having training available for multiple career paths from which students can choose?  And, without prioritizing one over all others?
  • What if grad students received training for research, as well as teaching and service?
  • What if foundational courses, like theory, did not end where the “classics” ended?  That is, including critical and interdisciplinary perspectives, and the work by marginalized theorists?
  • What if multiple methodological approaches were taught, encouraged, and supported (including financial support)?  That no grad student ever has to look outside of her discipline to find training or support?
  • What if diversifying the graduate student body, staff, and faculty was actual practice rather than pretty little lies?
  • What if more effort was made to retain graduate students?  And, to learn from those whose departure is completely unavoidable, rather than dismissing them as lazy, weak, stupid, or “quitters”?
  • What if graduate students’ health and well-being was considered a departmental priority?

What if graduate school didn’t suck?  What if it didn’t feel as though I traded my confidence, authenticity, mental health, and happiness for a PhD?  I do not regret my decision to pursue an academic career.  But, as I slowly recover all that I lost in pursuing one, I have to wonder — did it really have to happen this way?

I hope my work to make academia just a bit more socially just and hospitable will leave fewer future PhD students pondering these questions.

Stop Telling Me To Be Quiet

Tenure

“Careful.”

“Lower your voice.”

“Keep your head down and your mouth shut.”

“Don’t rock the boat.”

“You need to tone it down.”

It seems the universe has been dead-set on silencing, immobilizing, paralyzing, and deradicalizing me since my birth.  In simply being myself, which happens to entail being outspoken about injustice, I have been labeled uppity, radical, provocative, militant, showy, hypersensitive, and a trouble-maker.  In choosing to pursue a career in which I make change from within the system, I have struggled much of my life with finding the right balance of keeping my position and speaking out.  Worrying about what others think of me, specifically of losing out in major ways, I remained in the closet until age 17.

You would think it would be smooth sailing since then.  Actually, the further I have gone in my career — college, graduate school, and now a tenure-track faculty position — the more anxiety I have felt about how I present myself to the world.  At the same time, the “innocent” requests to shut up, hide, and stand still have increased.  Even at my quietest, most inauthentic, and politically inert point, I still receive these request.  It seems the universe won’t be satisfied until I completely disappear.  Or, maybe become a white straight man who upholds the status quo.

Enough! 

Recently, I ran into a friend who relayed to me other friends’ concerns that I am “too out there” in my new job.  Their thinking, along with everyone else’s it seems, is that tenure-track faculty should be seen and not heard.  Particularly for me as a young Black queer man, in an interracial same-gender relationship, living in the South, I should be ever vigilant about how I present myself to the world.  Duh.  I did not secure this job without doing that for years in graduate school.  I did not burst through my university’s doors declaring I would radically change the place.  Trust me.  To survive in this racist, sexist, heterosexist society, there is not a single day in which I do not constantly think about self-presentation.

When the quantoid in me lights up, I am really fed up with these requests.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been encouraged, usually from a place of concern, to be quiet, tone it down, hide who I am, etc.  Whatever the number, it far exceeds the times I have been encouraged to speak up, be seen, or shake things up.  And, let’s count the number of people who quietly exist within the status quo.  There are plenty.  We can afford to have just one more person who may make herstory by refusing to be “well-behaved” and quiet.

Where is the limit on being well-behaved?  Is being a good little black gay graduate student for six years enough, just til I get a PhD and a job?  No?  Oh — maybe it is the seven years of wearing suits that betray my genderqueer identity and stressing myself to publish in my discipline’s top journals — you know, to secure tenure.  Assuming I am of the rare sort to finish graduate school before 30, that means I can finally be free to be my outspoken self in my mid-thirties.  That is, you know, banking on tomorrows that are not promised to any of us.

And, outspokenness and activism are not the only things that are policed.  It is my identities as a queer person of color that are seen as a threat.  By entering into spaces that historically have excluded people like me, now shaping the next generation’s minds, I am a threat.  I am a threat whether I hold radical politics or not.  I could play it “safe” by academic standards and still be lynched outside of work because of my race.  Or, I could be denied tenure — you know, because discrimination and harassment occur within academia, too.  It is a damn shame, but the truest reality of them all is that my PhD merely affords me a different kind of policing of black and queer bodies.

I am tired of having to name my career path as one that seems out of the norm.  I am tired of having to justify not pursuing that good, ol’ prized Research I (R1) path, or even the silent, politically inert journey toward tenure at any type of school.  More importantly, in the midst of this miserable first semester, all that I do that is being read as outspoken or radical are merely strategies for my survival.  I am trying to carve out space in the universe so that I can actually get out of bed in the morning to go to work.

I note the good intentions behind the requests for silent inaction.  I appreciate it.  But, they typically come from people who do not know me well enough to give that kind of advice.  They do not know how much I really do negotiate interactions with others.  They do not know how many times I have completely shutdown because something so offensive has been said and I stew in guilt for not speaking up.  They do not know how many mornings I fight with my body and body image issues trying to fit into costumes deemed appropriate for professional men.  They have assumed I am recklessly opening my mouth without thinking, without doing my homework to make an informed critique, and without thinking about the potential consequences.

I am not an idiot.  I know what can happen to “outspoken faggots” and “uppity niggers”.  In a way, I am risking my life, or at least my status and position, to prevent that for myself and others like me.

So, please do me a favor.  Stop telling me to be quiet.

Think Like A Drag Queen

RuPaul

This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice