I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. II)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part II of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I here). Now that I’ve given some perspective on where I was coming from in my disciplinary background (folklore studies), I’ll talk about the other factors influencing my decision to maybe, kinda, sorta, not pursue a career in academia anymore.

In the past, I have blogged here at Conditionally Accepted about gauging internal and external ways to validate my work as an adjunct, as well as how identifying patterns of normalized weekend work in academia has led me to reevaluate my working habits. On my personal blog, I’ve written about how my experience of academia has oscillated between potential career and very expensive hobby. I’ve ranted – a lot – to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, both online and in person, about the uneasy fit between my experiences of academia and the narrative I’d swallowed in grad school. And finally, I’m able to put some of it into a coherent format.

But first, a word about how academia’s cultural practices complicate the personal/structural binary that runs throughout my piece. As grad students, we’re taught to link our professional career to our personal identity, which can be problematic when the number of jobs dwindles, simply making it a fact that most of us will not get to do what we love or what we’ve trained to do. There are “approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.” And yet, PhDs who “fail” to get jobs are facing damaging and misguided rhetoric, such as the idea that “The best students will always succeed” and “The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.” Rebecca Schuman’s outraged response mirrors mine, in that I’m appalled that the dominant response to those leaving academe has been so disdainful and out of touch with the reality of the academic job market and adjunct working conditions. Those who are stubborn enough to stick it out may eventually win a TT job, true, at which point the exploitation and abuse they’ve endured transmutes into praise for their dedication. This is such a bizarre system that I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether I want to stick around for that outcome.

The metaphor of “a thousand cuts that kill” describes my experience of alienation from the academic career track pretty well. There are lots of individual aspects of academia that I love, but the things that have worn me down and hurt me have begun to outnumber them. The things I enjoy are often concrete experiences I can easily point to and describe, whereas the things that detract from my enjoyment and my sense of integrity are more abstract, and hence more difficult to discuss. But hey, that’s why I got an advanced degree, so that I could describe the difficult-to-describe, right?

If I were to make a list of pros and cons of being a career-path academic (from my perspective), the shortened, blog-post-palatable version would look like this:

Pros:

  • I love teaching, research (both textual and ethnographic), writing, and presenting.
  • I excel at these tasks and have been recognized in various ways (yay external validation!), such as receiving fellowships, publishing many articles in peer-reviewed journals, and having multiple “this class was awesome and/or changed my life” conversations with grateful students.
  • Having a flexible schedule and the option of having summers off is great for me, plus I love to travel (like for conferences and research).
  • I need intellectual engagement in my life.

Cons:

  • I had inflated expectations about being able to get a job right out of grad school, so spending 3 unsuccessful years on the job market has been emotionally painful for me.  (For more on why academic rejection hurts so much, see Rebecca Shuman’s post, gathered from the responses she crowd-sourced here).
  • The nature of the academic job market is needlessly expensive, time-consuming, and exploitative (see Jennifer Guiliano’s suggestions for a more humane job market), and I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.
  • Spending the last few years adjuncting has opened my eyes to the exploitative nature of university work, and I can’t say I really want to be a part of this system in such a way that I structure my identity around it (and even should I land a TT job, I would be implicitly endorsing this hierarchical structure by participating in it).
  • I am close to burning out and no longer wish to work evenings and weekends on research that would help me stay competitive on the job market.
  • Getting tenure no longer seems to guarantee job security, so why struggle to get a TT job and subsequently overwork myself to have a shot at a vanishing dream?
  • Even if I did get a job, I’m not sure that I could, in good faith, mentor students.  (See this blog post for another perspective on advising grad students in good faith).
  • I’m at a point in my life where I want to prioritize my family and my relationships with others, so academia’s culture of overwork is less appealing to me than it was when I was younger, single, and itching for something to be passionate about.
  • I tend to struggle with anxiety and self-worth issues, and the culture of overwork in academia has not been good for my mental and emotional health.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, in order to have a shot at the hypothetical “it’ll all be worth it” outcome of a TT job, the more I question the wisdom of this plan despite the sunk costs and investments over time.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I feel like I’m not contributing to my household financially (because, truly, I’m not, and even though I got a decent funding package, I still graduated with student loans).
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I want to use my time to do other things, rather than work for an institution where students are paying the same tuition regardless of whether a part-timer or full-timer is teaching their classes.  (Hm, where is that extra money going?).

Lest anyone reading this think I wasn’t good enough to get a job, let’s all remember how arbitrary and flooded the academic job market is. I’ve got similar amounts of publications and other accolades as my colleagues who have found TT positions.

Regarding those last few bullet points, obviously it’s not all about the money. But when you’ve spent the last decade-plus believing that you’re laboring intensively to build the skill set to land you a given career, and then you learn that you likely won’t have a shot at the full-time version of that career unless you labor under exploitative conditions with no certainty of renewal… it’s tough. From another perspective, I experience cognitive dissonance about the pay scale because in other communities (like the performing arts), working for so little could be perceived as undercutting one’s competition. Except, in academia, it’s almost the opposite: because we adjuncts are willing to labor for so little, we are enabling those in pay scales above us to continue to do what they do at the rates they get paid. A little odd — isn’t it?

Even though this list is a rough approximation of my experiences of the last 3 years on the job market, simply weighing these considerations has been helpful for me. I’ve come to see that, while I enjoy and am good at many of the localized tasks involved in being a career academic, the overall culture has been toxic for me.

I’m not used to making big life decisions based on how I feel. (This should tell you what a great track record I’ve had in relationships). So it’s really weird for me to say that, despite being a competent scholar, and despite all signs pointing to me eventually being able to land a TT job someday, I don’t feel happy doing this work anymore. I just don’t. It doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t fulfill me, and those fleeting glimpses of joy simply don’t make up for all the frustration, anxiety, misery, shame, and other negative emotions and experiences that have come to comprise my attitude about academia. I know not everyone is in love with their job, and I’m not trying to be a special snowflake who deserves more happiness than everyone else. I’m just trying to relate how my negative experiences and feelings are making this job not terribly worth doing, given the other unsustainable aspects of this gig. And yet, like Elizabeth Segran, I fear that if I leave, I won’t get to do what I love anymore, so that’s another factor in my thought process. The “do it because you love it” rhetoric has always been problematic for educators (and really, everyone), as pointed out in this excellent Jacobin article.

So there’s been a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in reaching the point where I can say I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore. Note that there are a bunch of vagueness modifiers in this sentence; it’s not that I’ve completely ceased wanting to be a professor (I might want to take a job if I can find one that’s a good fit for me). And it’s not that I’m absolutely positive that I will never work in this profession ever again; the right circumstances could lure me back, and I’ll likely continue to do this kind of work, just with different expectations and goals.

Now that I’ve reached this realization, though, how do I act on it? That’s what my next blog post in this series addresses.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Taking A Real Summer Break

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

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

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Summer Break (For Real)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Wendy Christensen Reflects On Year 2 Of The Tenure-Track

Wendy ChristensenDr. Wendy M. Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her research focuses on how inequality shapes political participation.  In her free time she loves reading feminist theory and mysteries (and feminist mysteries!), running, and drinking beer.  You can learn more about Dr. Christensen on her website and on Twitter at @wendyphd

Below, Dr. Christensen reflects on her second year on the tenure-track — teaching, research, and service — specifically highlighting what worked and what did not.

Reflections Of My Second Year: Teaching, Research, and Service

It is the end of my second year in my tenure track position.  I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I have developed some strategies for surviving (and even thriving!).

Below, I describe some of what has worked and what hasn’t for me this past year.

Teaching

What Worked?

  • Less is more. I plan less for class and allow for organic discussion. I assign less reading, making sure the important readings are done thoroughly instead of assigning lots of readings that just aren’t going to be read.
  • When it comes to documentaries, more is more! There are tons of great sociology documentaries in the areas I teach in (Social Movements, Social Stratification, Intro, Methods) so I decided to splurge and show a full-length documentary (one that takes up a whole class period) every 2-3 weeks. At first I felt guilty. Am I’m slacking off? Then, a colleague pointed out that I’m letting people speak about their own experiences. As a feminist teacher, that is something I strive for. The films I’ve shown have been touchstones for students throughout the semester. In fact, during the last week of my Social Movements class they were still talking about the film I showed the first week — The Life and Times of Harvey Milk! The True Meaning of Pictures sparked one of the best student-driven class discussions I’ve ever had on objectification and authenticity in research!
  • Short, regular low-stakes reading reactions are a win-win. They keep students doing the reading, thinking about them and writing regularly. And they are super easy and fast for me to grade on a simple 4-point scale.
  • Google Drive has been fantastic this semester for students in my Methods courses. They use Google Drive to share assignments (interview questions, survey results etc.) with me. I can comment, and they are able to peer review each other’s papers through real time editing. Learning to use Google Drive has helped them give up their USB drives for a real backup system.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Attendance. I’m giving up on taking attendance. I will continue to do it (using a seating chart) for the first couple weeks of classes to learn names, but after that it’s a waste of time. It’s demeaning. They are adults and can decide whether to come to class. If they miss class, they’ll miss key information, and won’t get credit for in-class assignments.
  • Google Drive. Yes, it worked, but I need to find a way to manage the email notifications that come when I get assignments. Since committees and my department also use Google Drive, my inbox was flooded with updates and comments and shares all semester. There has to be a way to manage that.
  • Assignments due at the end of the semester. Weekly reading reaction papers helped spread the grading out somewhat, but I need to move up the due dates of bigger papers (drafts, etc.) so that they aren’t all due at the end of the semester.

Research

What Worked?

  • Simply writing. When I don’t think too much about writing—when to do it, where to do it, how stressful it might be etc.—then I am more able to just sit down and write. Overthinking about writing itself is a big time waste when I really can just spend the time writing.
  • I had a big writing wake up call this semester. In February attended my usual yearly feminist retreat, the winter meeting of Sociologist for Women in Society for my booster shot of empowerment. At this meeting I learned that I was being too much of a perfectionist about my writing. My mentors wisely convinced me that I am not allowed to be the judge of my own work. On the tenure track, I just need to write, finish drafts, and just send them out—for feedback and for publication. I left the meeting with a whole new outlook on writing. As a perfectionist, I am not allowed to decide when something is “done” because then it will never be done! This quote sums up my new approach: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”– Alain de Botton.
  • Regular writing. Yes, I’ve read about this before, but over the past year I really put it into practice. Writing in little chunks as close to daily as possible (~4 days a week) makes writing much easier. If I wait too long between writing sessions, I’m more frustrated and get less done.

What Didn’t Work?

  • A set schedule of what to do every hour. I tried making a schedule and mapping out my day. It didn’t work. Meetings, weeks with lots of grading, informal conversations with colleagues etc. all got in the way of the schedule. It stressed me out. I know this works for some people, but it’s not going to work for me.
  • Perfectionism. See above. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Failure, rejection? Trying again? Those things are all better than nothing happening at all!

Service

As a second year faculty member, I am not longer excused from service.

What Worked?

  • Doing service I care about. Each committee I’m serving on means something to me. I’m on the Curriculum Committee instead of Assessment (I’m not a big test person), and the Student Retention Committee instead of the Budget Committee. I’m on the LGBTQA Advisory Board and that counts as university-level service, so I’m steering clear of the faculty Senate for now. The colleagues I work with on these committees care about the same issues I do, and that’s energizing.
  • Consistency. Every year in our department we volunteer for committees. I decided to not try anything new, so that there isn’t a big learning curve again for new committees in the fall. Everyone is happy with my current level of service, so I’m keeping it exactly where it is.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Doing too much! Yes, like many junior faculty, I am terrible at saying no. What am I supposed to do when asked to be on the Race & Gender Project Board?  Say no?  Hell no! I did say no to being the chair of that committee, though!

What has your year been like?  What has worked for you and what do you still need to work on?

One Reason To Consider Saying “Yes” To Service

Image Source: HuffPo (http://huff.to/MwaapI)

There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student.  As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way.  And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia.  (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.)  I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.

But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever?  Here, I do not mean  — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews.  What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups?  Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?

Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.”   At least three reasons.  And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”

Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)

I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work.  Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV.  I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world.  But, even my weekends are spent recovering.

Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service.  I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers.  I miss talking about something other than academia.  (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.)  I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.

Scholarship In Action

Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research.  But, our students are a select (privileged) group.  And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated.  And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom.  Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful.  But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms.  Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!

Feel Appreciated And Respected

Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place.  “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me?  there must be a mistake!”

An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class.  The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia.  That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception.  Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations?  Wow!

By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations.  That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing.  Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place!  People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined).  I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute.  I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals.  At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives.  I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities.  Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist.  Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.

Conformity is overrated.  And it is bad for science and higher education.

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 Works With The Smart Kids? Dr. Michaela A. Nowell Does!

Michaela NowellDr. Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness.  Below, Dr. Nowell dispels the myths about students at two-year colleges, and the faculty at these institutions.  She concludes with practical tips for teaching two-year college students.

Who Works With The Smart Kids?  I Do.

If I said I worked at a 2-year institution, would you assume my students are A) slackers B) unintelligent C) unmotivated or D) brilliant?

Bad, Elitist Advice In The Academy

In graduate school, a professor told us that (if we deigned to prioritize teaching over research) we wanted to teach at a prestigious, elite institution – one where we could teach the smart students. Teaching the “smart” students would be the most rewarding, and smart students were at good, prestigious universities.

As someone who went to community college, I couldn’t believe my ears. I was both too angry and too powerless to speak up. But I didn’t believe such an elitist, classist notion for one second. My own experience told me that was a lie. Smart kids are everywhere. Smart kids go to community college. I was a smart kid who went to community college. And although I may have been “exceptional” in some ways—many of which stem from my structurally supported privileges—I am not the exception to the rule.

Now I teach at a two-year, freshman-sophomore institution*…and my students are awesome. My students are plenty smart and seldom presumptuous, and it’s incredibly rewarding.

I know smart kids come from freshman-sophomore institutions.  In fact, I believe community college made me. I was a smart kid, but I had no idea what I could achieve. The opportunities, mentoring, and encouragement I received at community college changed the trajectory of my life. My experience at a Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio is why I became a professor—because I saw there the profound difference that professors can make, not only in students’ lives, but in the world at large. Also, because my first sociology professor, Katherine Rowell, believed in me more than I believed in myself, and I REALLY needed that. I know my students need that, too.

The Real Difference Isn’t Smarts (Or, no kidding, Structural Difference much?)

The main differences between my freshman-sophomore students and the students I taught at a prestigious 4-year university are that my current students are spread thinner in terms of time and resources, they are much less academically empowered, and (largely) they aren’t academically socialized.

My students have less resources and time, which means that the time they have to think about the ins-and-outs of being a successful student, let alone the time they have to enact those behaviors, is much less than most students at 4-year institutions. While they lack time and resources (one of my students has 2 jobs, a ridiculous commute, and is also a full-time student), they are fantastic at drawing on these real life experiences. If I’m teaching about role conflict and role strain, it’s not hard for them to imagine how that applies to real life. Instead of seeing their complicated lives as a drawback, I see it as an asset to accomplishing my teaching goals.

One of the biggest deficits I have observed is a lack of empowerment. Many, if not most, of my students don’t think they know the answers, and they are afraid to speak up and take the risk that someone will think they are stupid. They are not stupid, but most of the students I teach were in the middle of the pack and never received a lot of attention (or engagement) in their primary schooling. Further, they come from a system where they have been taught to be passive learners, to be bodies that are fed “knowledge” with the expectation that they memorize whatever the teacher or textbook says. They don’t see teachers as people who actually care about their learning and they don’t see teachers as accessible. Often, they think this is a failure on their part. I had a student struggling last semester who said to me, “I don’t know why I thought I could even go to college.” And this was a perfectly smart student! As a sociologist, I see this as a structural, systematic problem and not a problem of my students being unintelligent or lazy. When we say our students are underprepared we might instead say our institutions are underpreparing them…or, in fact, setting them up for failure.

Fifty-one percent of the students at my college are first generation college students, most of whom do not have the benefit of even cursory academic socialization.  Again, this doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. One of my colleagues put it this way, “The university students I taught were just better at eloquently restating the definitions, not better at understanding the material.” And yes, some freshman-sophomore students don’t have “the skills.” So what? I have found it more than rewarding to teach them. To help socialize them. To empower them. And to see how damn smart they are makes me proud in every moment.

For instance, I recently had an hour-long nerdfest with a student in which I taught her that she had access to journal articles and databases and encyclopedias and interlibrary loan, and we talked about literature reviews and the research process. I didn’t know this stuff when I started college either. You know what my freshman-sophomore student said? “Why isn’t this stuff available to the public? Why do we only have access to this through college? It doesn’t make sense. Would you want everyone to know this?” A questioning student is more important to me than an academically socialized one any day of the week.

And every day my students ask great questions, make brilliant points, nurture connections across course material, and think interdisciplinarily. They do this better than the students I encountered at the prestigious university where I taught before. The trick is getting them comfortable enough to be willing to engage with you, to ask those questions in the first place. They haven’t learned to breech the professor-student barrier, let alone understand the benefits of engaging with your professor.  Once you prove to them you’re accessible, you open up a floodgate…and they will amaze you.

If you, as a professor, can’t seem to engage freshman-sophomore students, you may want to use your sociological imagination.  Sociologist Dalton Conley refers to the sociological imagination as “making the familiar strange.” In sociology we learn to question our assumptions and think about how social systems shape individuals. Are you expecting them to already be academically socialized? Are you expecting them to be empowered and excited about learning when they come from a system that teaches them to be passively unsatisfied with their learning environment? Are you expecting them to speak a language similar to the one you worked long and hard to speak correctly? If so, you have some unreasonable expectations that you might want to readjust. It may be easier to teach students who are already academically socialized, who take charge of their education on their own, and who have time to be dedicated to their status as a student, but that does not mean that those students are smarter and it does not equal a more rewarding job.

Practical Advice for Teaching Freshman-Sophomore Students

Here are some suggestions I think are especially important for teaching freshman-sophomore students, but they are also suggestions one might say are exemplary of a good teacher…and thus, they may be helpful for anyone teaching at any level.

  1. Address the realities and help prepare students to do better. Let them know that you know that X problem is going to occur and tell them the answer. I know some of my students will fade away. On the first day we talk about why this happens—something happens in their lives, they miss one or two classes, and then they are anxious or embarrassed or overwhelmed and they don’t come back—and why they should come back anyway. And letting them know that you know lays the groundwork for a common understanding.
  2. Reveal (some of) your secrets and get them on board with your methods. I tell them that I know they’ve been taught to memorize, but that memorizing doesn’t equal understanding and memorizing won’t do them a damn bit of good in my class. I systematically show them they can understand and remember concepts without memorizing them and I demonstrate methods they can use to foster connections in their brains. I socialize them to take charge of their learning…but I have to teach them how to learn from me. When I first started doing exercises where students have to teach each other part of the material, students were reluctant and some of them thought I was just being lazy. So I address these concerns when I do something like that for the first time. When students can see that 1) they did this and didn’t die and that 2) they learned and retained a lot of information and 3) that it was actually fun, they are no longer so skeptical.
  3. If you want them to talk, reveal that you know their secrets. They are insecure. They don’t want to look dumb. They get nervous. They know the answer but speaking up will draw attention to them and someone might judge them. They are confused and they aren’t “supposed” to be. Tell them you get it. Then tell them and show them you care more about their understanding than a right answer.
  4. Make it very clear that you care about their actual learning and comprehension and what they have to say. Do not just give lip service to this. I don’t know about your students, but my students want to learn from someone that gives a damn about them. I tell them we’re going to talk in this class. I also tell them I’m going to value what they have to say. And I honor that. Remember that in order to actually show them you value what they are saying, you have to sometimes cede the point you were “trying” to make and build upon the one they are trying to make. Professors too often fail to answer a question or address a comment because they have a preconceived notion of where the conversation should be going.
  5. Teach them that they are smart and that they can figure things out. More than anything, they are reluctant. I tell them I know they know the damn answers or have ideas and just won’t say anything. I get at their fears of not being smart in my speech about plagiarism where I tell them that, in my experience, people plagiarize when they are scared they aren’t smart enough to write whatever it is they are supposed to be writing. And I tell them that I want to hear what they have to say, not some academic gobbledygook.
  6. Treat them like human beings and let them know you are human, too. If the class isn’t prohibitively large, learn their names…and use them. You can learn their names if you set your mind to it. When they know that you know their name, they are no longer invisible in class (or outside of class). For most of their lives they have learned to love and hate their invisibility in the classroom. It protects them from speaking up and looking stupid, but it also allows them to be terribly disengaged and depersonalized. Knowing their names means you identify them as people and helps to break down the barriers that stifle student engagement.

Freshman-sophomore students deserve great professors—as do all students, really. They deserve the positive impact that will have on their lives. They deserve to hear how smart they are. They deserve professors who believe in them. And they deserve to hear how rewarding it is to work with them.

The smart kids are everywhere. As a grad school friend of mine says, “Teach ‘em good.”

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Note:

* Freshman-sophomore is a designation that is broader and less stigmatizing, acknowledging students at these levels are similar across different kinds of institutions. After all, we don’t typically mark students at universities as “4-year” students…they are “students.”

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

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

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Tick Tock: Love or Learning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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