Pursuing Tenure As A Survivor Of Sexual Assault Suffering From PTSD

Note: this essay was originally published on our career advice column featured on Inside Higher Ed (here). The anonymous author is now a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college.

Surviving Rape and PTSD in Academe

I came to my current institution as a sexual assault survivor. A newly minted Ph.D., I had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Together, they transformed the most ordinary tasks into overwhelming obstacles.

I experienced everything that a first-year professor experiences: the daunting task of creating new classes, the dizzying dance of whether to go hard or soft on my students, the effort of forging collegial relationships and the search for friends and community in a new town. And yet I was also in pain, lost amid a whirlwind of flashbacks and panic attacks, hypervigilance and battered self-esteem.

I only confided in one friend about what was going on. The social stigma surrounding rape was such that I worried others would reject and isolate me if they knew. Certainly, the daily news was full of stories of the price women paid for naming their experience. I was also deeply afraid that I would lose my job and my colleagues would see me as a hazard, rather than as someone deserving of their support.

Being hypervigilant meant that there was no place in which I felt safe, least of on all my new campus. Raised voices — even the general, positive hubbub of students in class — led me to dissociate. Loud noises would cause me to panic. Sometimes I could not identify what triggered me but would experience sensory processing difficulties all the same. Every day was a battle: to get out the door, to prepare for class, to be the professor that my students needed me to be. I was constantly exhausted, anxious and fearful that someone would notice the cracks at the heart of my being.

Every aspect of my job proved difficult, but research most of all. Archival work required that I get in my car and drive for hours to a city far from my rural home. It required the confidence to talk to archivists and the wherewithal to be around people without feeling unsafe. It required concentration that I did not have, self-assurance that I had long since shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my performance was affected. My pretenure review went badly.

By then, I had finally found a therapist who had delivered my diagnoses, and I decided that I should tell my colleagues and dean what was happening. When I did so, one member of my department reared back and exclaimed, “I don’t need to know that sort of thing!” I left their office frightened and ashamed. Another colleague decided my PTSD was to blame for my lack of response to their unsolicited line edit of a paper I had submitted with my file and chided me for letting my illness get the better of me. A third colleague neglected to warn me of a film’s graphic rape scene in a class we were teaching. Intensely triggered, I completely shut down for the next two days. The dean expressed sympathy about my PTSD but told me to just push on through. I could take an extra year on my tenure clock, they offered, but urged me to gather up all my willpower and do it in the original time I was allotted.

No one said, “I’m not sure what PTSD is — let me educate myself.” No one said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “We’re concerned about you.” No one said, “How can we help?”

It came as no surprise, then, that my institution handled student sexual assaults poorly. Stories burned through campus: the survivor who’d been told to think about how her attacker felt; the young woman who was counseled not to make a “big deal” out of things by demanding redress; the several students who were sent from one campus office to the next with their reports, no one believing it was their responsibility to deal with the situation. When one incident blew up into a campuswide issue, faculty members came together to take action. They decided that they should write a letter saying they opposed rape. I asked what the letter was intended to achieve, since no one, surely, would come out and say they advocated for rape. I didn’t get an answer.

What my colleagues did not see was that we were all complicit in the rape culture of our campus. By not demanding real change — clear policies, accountability and consequences for violent actions — we implicitly said that rape was acceptable, public letters notwithstanding. And I was struck by the fact that the same colleagues advocating for the letter were the colleagues who had refused to accommodate my disability or treat me with empathy and respect. I began telling more people that I was a survivor, naïvely believing that my colleagues’ response to sexual violence would perhaps change if they personally knew someone who had been raped. But it didn’t. If anything, it weakened my position. It would not be the first or last time gossip on the campus charged that I was acting out of victimhood and should not be indulged.

I privately contemplated suicide, although it was teaching that saved me. As I sat on a campus bench one morning, eating yogurt and tallying reasons to live or die, I realized I was close to running late for class. I went to the classroom out of a sense that it was necessary to show up, to be present, to listen to what my students had to say. By the end of class, I could see my situation clearly enough to call my therapist and admit how bad things were. I didn’t tell anyone at my university. Again, I was afraid that I would lose my job.

I got tenure on the regular tenure clock — an achievement that even now feels surreal given everything that I was battling. I was elated when I heard and when a friend said, “You did all of this with PTSD.” And then I got angry at the fact that I had had to meet not only the explicit expectations of publications, good teaching and thoughtful service but also the implicit ones: I would do so as if I were neurotypical, rather than someone with a disability protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was expected to make tenure without necessary accommodations for my success, safety and well-being. An extra year on the clock would have helped. Expecting me to teach fewer new courses would have helped. Allowing me to submit documentation of my disability to the faculty in charge of tenure review would have helped. But most of all, if I had received other people’s understanding, I would have been a healthier colleague and teacher all around.

Cause for Hope

Happily, my personal recovery accelerated after finding a therapist who performed a technique that, month by month, replaced the feelings of terror associated with my traumatic memories with calm and coping. That, along with the increased security of tenure, encouraged me to out myself as a survivor to my students. By then, aided and abetted by word of mouth and an unofficial network of survivors who recognized one another, I knew too many people who had faced the withering indifference of their peers, professors and administrators when they tried to articulate the pain of having survived a sexual assault. I wanted to show my students they were not alone and that it was possible to survive and even flourish after experiencing such hurt.

A turning point arrived unexpectedly. On the campus, resistance to seeing rape culture for what it was eventually spilled out into the debate about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings coddled already spoiled students, argued some of my colleagues. No one would protect students from “real life” after college, so why should we do it now? Art was supposed to be a place where students could process their feelings, not hide from them. Science was allegedly a field in which sexual assault had no bearing on the subject of the day. As article after article about our “coddled” students made the rounds on the faculty mailing list, I stepped in to give a first-person account of what typically happened when a person with PTSD was triggered. For the first time, I had colleagues who responded positively, who heard what I was saying and took it into account as they decided where they stood on trigger warnings themselves. I was hopeful.

Student activism also gave me cause for hope. Empowered by the revamped Title IX process under the Obama administration, students demanded change in our institution’s policies and procedures for reporting assault. They demanded that the campus become a friendlier place for survivors and tirelessly articulated that those who had been assaulted were not somehow to blame if they later developed symptoms of PTSD. It was this activism that gave me new language for my own situation. Such efforts allowed me to see clearly that I was not a burden on anyone unless the system that surrounded me was broken. When our workplace demands that we be something other than we are in order to carve out a place for ourselves in the academy, the problem is not us but rather the workplace itself.

I continue to heal. It is not so much that I grow stronger everyday as it is that that strength demands less active labor on my part to be realized. I have always been strong, as have all survivors. The idea that any of us are overprotected and overindulged is a lie told by individuals comfortable in their privilege — be it the privilege of never being assaulted or the privilege provided by their power and position to ignore the very real pain of those around them. There are surely people, too, who cannot yet speak up or speak out, whose indifference is a mask they must adopt to survive the effects of the trauma visited upon them. I hope they find a more welcoming academic home than I did.

Navigating Graduate School As A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. The anonymous author is a Ph.D. student at a large public research university.

Sexual Violence and Graduate School

I was an excellent student before I was raped.

As a child, I was above average in school. My books were a place to hide, and my teachers were a consistent source of support. My self-worth was intertwined with my performance in the classroom. School was where I felt confident and safe. I excelled.

After junior year of college, I became a person who could not concentrate and was chronically absent from class. I was angry, demanding and inflexible. I do not remember sleeping. I sometimes cried in closets. I lost friends. I stared out of the window during class. I struggled with substance abuse. That perfect student was gone.

In therapy, I often refer to myself before my trauma as “she/her” — as if I were a completely different person. It is the only way that I can think about it without losing my mind. I write this without hyperbole.

After being assaulted in college, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After years in therapy, trying different medications, learning to reinforce boundaries with friends and family (and even professors), I am finally making lasting progress.

Now, as a Ph.D. student at a different institution, I am not standing on top of the parking garage, contemplating stepping off of the edge. I have not had a nightmare in a while, though I still have issues sleeping through the night. These days, I am fairly consistent with my work. I am able to talk about my research without crippling anxiety.

But some of the old challenges remain, while new challenges that are unique to grad school have emerged. Sometimes I feel like a fraud because my department admitted her, but they got me instead.

On Being a Survivor in Grad School

According to the Department of Justice, 18 percent of women in the United States have reported being raped in their lifetime. In 2006, 5 percent of all college women reported being raped. When other forms of sexual assault are included, this number increases to one in four undergraduate women. These statistics do not include survivors who do not identify as women, although studies show transgender students and nonbinary individuals have even higher levels of sexual assault.

But even though there are so many survivors, we don’t seem to have space in higher education. Despite knowing my history, my college professor once embarrassed me by publicly making fun of how zoned out I was in class. In graduate school, a student called me “lazy” and “full of excuses.” Another faculty member told me that they kept it together despite their life-threatening disease, so I should also get it together. Due to my disability, I have experienced public shaming, condescending lectures and slights against my character. It is all very defeating.

I often wish I were her, not me. She would have been so much better at grad school; she would never receive these triggering comments. There would have been a little bit more space for her.

There is no space for me. There is sympathy, but no understanding. There is only critique and an immense pressure to perform like the students without my disability. I find myself begging faculty members to have faith in me and apologizing for things that are outside of my control.

I feel ashamed of my disability. I wish it did not exist. Sometimes, I wish I did not exist.

The typical down-and-out feelings are easier for someone without mental-health challenges to process. When you are a survivor of sexual assault, the typical trials and tribulations of grad school life trigger feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness and helplessness. I get triggered, and it is a chain reaction, but I am getting better at managing it. And just to be clear: my disorder makes me stronger and more capable than most people. Even when I do spiral into a shame hole and fall into a 14-hour depression nap, I am still strong.

Even on my worst day, I know deep down that I am extraordinary. It takes a commitment to self, patience and compassion to heal from trauma. Most important, recovery requires support from professionals, family, friends and even institutions.

Offering Support

So, how can we make higher education more supportive for sexual assault survivors?

Besides the obvious (stop sexual violence), that’s a hard question to answer. In general, faculty members must have a better understanding of mental-health challenges among their students. When students disclose their disability, faculty members often avoid asking further questions in an effort to be respectful and avoid extending the conversation. I have experienced that, but I have pushed against their discomfort to specifically disclose that I suffer from PTSD. It is not enough to comply with disability accommodations. Faculty members need a general understanding of mental health and how they can avoid triggering students.

Faculty members need to understand depression and anxiety, as they are often consequences of sexual assault. It does not take much time to read up on how these challenges affect students. A quick search (“depression in students”) will return a wealth of information on this subject, although with few suggestions for what educators can do to assist struggling graduate students.

An article by Rachel Adams highlights two important things: 1) students with depression often disappear instead of reach out for help, and 2) due to the stigmas of mental illness and disabilities, many students do not receive a diagnosis or disability accommodation. With that in mind, graduate advisers must take initiative. Although few students will explicitly disclose being a survivor of sexual assault, the subsequent depression and anxiety are more easily recognizable. I am at my best when my adviser is attentive, suggesting breaks and offering advice and reassurance. Anxiety causes me to put off work due to a debilitating need for perfection, but maintaining communication and scheduling weekly meetings has helped me keep me accountable.

Graduate advisers should explicitly tell students to fight the urge to vanish. If you notice that behavior, take initiative and recommend university counseling and disability services. I know that you have a million projects, but it is your job to keep up with your students. Schedule weekly meetings, send emails and advise them on how to balance work and life. I have found the worst thing about being a survivor is feeling alone.

As survivors, we carry the guilt and shame of what happened to us. In academe, people speak in frustrating, roundabout ways. I am not surprised that the conversation on sexual assault in academe is limited. The burden of this conversation falls on the shoulders of those of us who have experienced it — and some of us are just trying to get to tomorrow. It is hard to talk about because it makes me feel vulnerable and unsafe. It is a deeply personal conversation to have in public.

I do not know which is scarier to reveal — my trauma or my experience with my department. That tells me this conversation is absolutely necessary. If I have learned anything from my recovery, it is what you avoid discussing is often the subject that most urgently needs to be addressed.

There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  The anonymous author is a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching — how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender course.

It was the middle of the semester, and we were covering rape culture. As any feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they have been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they have actually perpetrated rape and struggle to reconcile that with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it is like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few men students who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims like the following, among others:

  • In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of sexual violence have anything to do with clothing choice: “But don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”
  • In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”
  • In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”
  • In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they are intoxicated: “Well, don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”
  • In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys” or “locker room talk.”

Every so often, however, men students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape-culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality?”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as nonbinary people) to share their experiences with rape, since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender course, I hoped that the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing an example of a case he read in the news media in which a woman on a college campus raped a man and the institution responded poorly. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a men’s rights advocacy group. “OK,” I thought to myself, “students use questionable sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish objective journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his argument quickly devolved into a tirade claiming — since he presented just one case wherein a woman raped a man — that feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about gender inequality. He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example; rather, he simply ranted against feminism, women and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something the man who raped me would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as him: white, college male, between the ages of 18 and 22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I could not concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he did not like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the rational-instructor side of my brain could not overpower the trauma-survivor side.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

Zero! You get a fucking zero!” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I was not ready to return to grading papers yet, so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting, this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a woman instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I have had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath and began to read it again. No one ever advised me how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I am sure this will not be the last time that I have to navigate it.

Intellectual Violence In Academia

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

For over a year now, I have been seeing a therapist to work through the trauma that was my graduate training. I have a knack for discussing personal troubles publicly, so I have been writing about the recovery process over the past year, as well. I figure, since the structure and culture of the academy is complicit in the trauma, why should I continue to suffer silently? Others like me (Black, queer, non-binary, fat, activist) and not like me have probably been traumatized, too.

Since going public about my story – grad school as “little T” trauma (not as bad as “big T” traumas like rape, child abuse, or war) – I have been privy to other marginalized academics’ trauma narratives. Most of these folks have not said a word, but their reactions to my story say a great deal. I have become more adept at recognizing trauma in other academics: retelling the same painful stories of oppression and injustice over and over; consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from others – “please believe how awful this was”; continuing to give power to those who traumatized them, at least as “air time” in their thoughts, nightmares, and stories. I recognize it because I was doing it and still do at times, albeit to a lesser extent with the help of therapy.

As others have actually named their own trauma and shared those stories with me, I have not only found confirmation that 1) I am not alone in being traumatized by my graduate school experiences and 2) the forces that lead to trauma for marginalized students and scholars is likely far worse than I imagined. Academe and its graduate education is not merely out of touch with the needs of the world beyond the ivory tower. It is not simply a matter of academics having their heads up their butts while job security remains a luxury for the few and exploitative labor conditions in academe have become the new normal for PhDs.

There is a longstanding, widespread phenomenon that I fear too few of us recognize, and even fewer of us are willing to name: intellectual violence. In the name of job prospects, tenurability, professional status, grant funding options, journal homes, citation rates, impact factors, and so forth, many (privileged) academics promote the erasure, stereotyping, disempowerment, objectification, exotification, and silencing of oppressed communities. The status quo of the larger racist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and fatphobic society is upheld by the academy; worse, academe maintains a reputation for social justice, diversity and inclusion, and critical investigation of the status quo.

I suspect many academics are aware of the ways in which science has been used to advance oppressive causes. We must credit early white men scientists, many of whom were obsessed with creating a taxonomy of humans especially on the basis of race and sexuality, for their influence in oppressive ideologies and policies. (But, let’s not be too optimistic in thinking scientific racism or scientific homophobia are historical artifacts. Think Jason Richwine and Mark Regnerus, among others.)

But, far fewer academics seem to be openly acknowledging the ways in which academic research and teaching (unintentionally) enact violence against oppressed communities through academic norms and values. Where money and resources go says a great deal about an institution’s priorities. So, we can infer from the relatively small number of gender and/or women’s studies, racial and/or ethnic studies, Black and African American studies, Latinx studies, LGBT and queer studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous studies, and disability studies programs that these areas of academic study, curricula, and, arguably, communities of study, are unimportant in the academy. Where these programs exist, they are underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed.

Most insulting is making marginalized scholars complicit in this violence by making their own job security and professional success dependent upon it. Though naïve about the academy as I graduated college and headed to grad school, I was at least aware that a PhD in sociology would open far greater doors than one in gender or sexuality studies. But, I had no idea that trading off the joy I felt in my gender and sexuality studies courses in college for job prospects in academe was the first of a series of compromises and concessions. I regularly conformed, repeatedly passing up opportunities to pursue gender and sexuality studies for a more mainstream path. This explains why my most recent work falls in the realm of medical sociology, despite being recognized as a sexuality researcher on all counts but my actual training.

On some level, perhaps mostly unconscious, six years of training that implied to me that queer and trans people, women, people of color – and especially people at the intersections of these identities – are unimportant led me to agree with the devaluing of research and teaching on and advocacy with oppressed communities. It led me to agree that these communities themselves hold little value relative to cis hetero middle-class white America. No one held a gun to my head to force me to make the decisions that I made. However, I actually think the intellectual nature of this kind of violence was actually far more damaging than physical violence would ever be. The intentional resocialization of grad school changed how I view the world, how I think of myself as a scholar and an activist, and altered how I relate to my own communities.

Like many victims of oppression, I have also internalized the voice that leads me to doubt the severity of my own marginalization. As I write this, I want to concede that I am being a bit dramatic by using the word violence to describe my training, that I am insulting real victims of trauma (“big T” trauma). But, I keep coming back to the word violence when I think about what I have had to do to recover. On the health front, I have been spending a great deal of time and money on acupuncture, massages, fitness training, and therapy, plus taking a yoga class and Lexapro for the anxiety, to deal with the psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms of the trauma. I have given up a decent chuck of my research leave trying to get healthy – all the while feeling guilty for prioritizing self-care and resentful that privileged colleagues on leave can churn out books because there is little to no trauma from which to recover.

Professionally, I have had to unlearn much of my graduate training in order to heal, to move forward with my research trajectory, to sustain myself, and to feel that my work is aligned with my values as an activist. I have to relearn how to love my communities and myself, and to trust that my gut and spirit are leading me in the right direction, even if that means straying from mainstream academic norms. I will never be free if I let institutional and professional norms define me as a person, if I take my value and worth as a person and scholar from any institution.

Defining what it means to be a scholar on my own terms is scary because I lack role models, and I lack a path-well-taken that assures me that I am headed in the right direction. And, such self-definition is not without its risks. But, for the sake of my health, longevity, and well-being, I can no longer be complicit in the intellectual violence against my communities and me. I will never be free by appeasing institutions that are set on maintaining the status quo.

Post-PhD Growth: This Is Where I Stop Apologizing For Who I Am

"Not Sorry" by Alex Guerrero

“Not Sorry” by Alex Guerrero

I am embarrassed to state this… again.

My graduate training traumatized me. Yes, let me give the obligatory qualifier: I mean “little t” trauma, not “big T” trauma like sexual violence, natural disasters, or war. I continue to work through that special kind of trauma that is not even listed in the DSMcomplex trauma. No one has accused me of being overly dramatic, or playing the victim, or being unfairly critical of my grad program — at least not to my face. But, I feel self-conscious about it — not enough to keep it between my therapist and me, obviously, but just enough to downplay something that has plagued my heart, spirit, mind, identity, and career for a few years now.

But, enough about that. I am tired of telling that story, even though I feel compelled to do so again as though I need to convince others how bad grad school was for me. I am tired of hearing myself tell that story. I am sure at least a few others who have heard me talk about it are tired of hearing it, too, though no one has ever said so. But, that’s trauma for you. I have gotten better about recognizing trauma’s impact on others’ lives; they tell the same story, less for informing others, and more for validating their own hurt (though it’s never enough to heal deep wounds).

Though I no longer have meaningful ties to my graduate program or any of my graduate school professors, their influence has lingered in my life. The little voice that tells me what I should be doing with my career was deeply implanted into my head. Even as I intentionally and actively pursue opportunities that defy the expectations of a normative career typical of professors at Research I universities, my efforts often involve negotiation with the should voice. I have found myself justifying why doing something other than should makes sense for me and/or my career. I sometimes compromise with should by doing what it demands to compensate for doing things it cautions against. (“Yes, I’m running this blog, but I’ve got two papers under review!”) On occasion, I have apologized for doing things that should says I shouldn’t be doing. Half-joking, yet half-serious, I have complained to my partner, “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”

I don’t know that I believe in destiny or fate, for I have never given it much thought. But, working through the trauma of grad school has helped me to see the inevitability of some events in my life. I gave grad school a good try. But, structurally and culturally, it was bound to traumatize me, even if I totally caved to the pressures to forgo research on my own communities and advocacy with those communities. I knew too little as an undergraduate student to be able to assess the extent to which a given graduate program would support me in developing a career as a scholar-activist. I can no longer blame myself for the choices and compromises that I made, the parts of my soul I sold for job prospects, or for the things I did or didn’t say. This Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist could never come out of a program like the one I attended with both a job and full sanity — I had to pick one or the other.

But, I graduated three years ago. I am now halfway to tenure at the University of Richmond, and many (all?) of the signs point to a smooth, favorable tenure decision. I have found in UR a place that supports my career as a scholar-activist. I no longer have contact with my grad school. I am long overdue for cutting grad school’s influence in my career and my life.

The primary reason for moving on — forgiving them and forgiving myself — is that I landed exactly where I said that I would. I intended to end up at a liberal arts college so that I could teach and do research, but leave myself ample time for advocacy and community service. Though with a regrettable detour (i.e., grad school’s push away from marginal research), I am doing research on my communities. Grad school was nothing more than the means to this desired end. That’s all getting the degree should be for anyone, no matter their background or career goals.

And, though I was naïve about what graduate training in mainstream sociology entailed, I was completely honest about who I was when I entered the program. In my personal statement, I noted my experience with activism as an undergrad, and that this work influenced my scholarship. And, I even stated a desire to make the academy more inclusive and hospitable for marginalized folks like myself. To quote the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “[w]hen someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” I showed the program who I was and who I wanted to become — it was their opportunity to embrace or waste to support me in developing that self-defined career.

I am done apologizing for who I am and the career that I have designed for myself. I will never be a traditional academic, no matter how hard I try. It was never in the cards for me. I am sure I am not alone in being seduced into the highly-valued Research I career path, but it just doesn’t suit me. That is fine for those who are genuinely interested in such a career — no shade to those people.

There is more than one way to be a successful academic. I have finally found mine.

Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.

“What’s the deal with this PTDS book,” my parents asked when they last visited me. Common understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the mental scars that soldiers, survivors of sexual violence and childhood abuse carry – certainly don’t call to mind any aspect of my life. My parents even sat through my talk on intellectual activism at the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows, in which I attempted to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate school that inevitably led me to be traumatized by my graduate training. But, maybe they assumed I was using the term “trauma” to be provocative or dramatic. With some embarrassment, I had to explain that I was, indeed traumatized by grad school, experiencing the symptoms of complex trauma, which is not (yet) officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (the major psychiatric guide for mental disorders in the US).

When my therapist pointed out the trauma – really only repeating back to me comments I had made just moments before about being traumatized – I also resisted. Seriously, who gets traumatized by educational training? I wasn’t physically attacked, I was not raped or sexually assaulted, and I did not endure torture or extreme warfare. Coursework, a qualifying exam, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and some teaching experience – these, on the surface, are about equipping me with the skills necessary to become an independent scholar, the skills necessary to obtain a PhD and, ideally, a tenure-track job. To help me to begin to see the trauma, my therapist encouraged me to write a trauma narrative.

So, I took some time to write down every challenging, offensive, and potentially traumatizing event or condition that I could draw from my memory. In the midst of writing about one memory, I would have to make a note to write about another that came to mind. “Oh, how could I forget about that!” I thought several times in this process. In the end, I had nearly filled a 70-page spiral notebook with such memories. When I flipped through the notebook, I asked myself, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?” Guilty of being an academic geek, I took the time to identify some common themes: 1) repeated exposure to and witnessing of microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination; 2) devaluing of my research interests, in particular, work on my own communities (i.e., people of color, LGBTQ people, and, especially, LGBTQ people of color); 3) the undermining of my career choices, namely eventually becoming a professor at a liberal arts college; and, 4) an explicit attempt to “beat the activist” out of me through the graduate training.

I have continued to work through my therapist to begin to recover from the trauma. The initial and, it seems, hardest step has been to name the trauma. It has taken some time to stop denying that grad school could be so bad, that I was somehow too weak to survive traumatizing circumstances, or that it is my fault for not leaving at the first sign of trauma. I, like most others, would never expect trauma to be one of the outcomes of graduate training. So, blaming myself or denying the trauma doesn’t help.

Once my therapist and I opened that door, I began to grow impatient. Now what? I wanted some sort of homework to do outside of therapy sessions, though I learned that was not my therapist’s approach. So, I looked into buying workbooks that I could do on my own. Unsurprisingly, most that are out there focus on what my therapist calls “big T Trauma”: sexual violence; war; child abuse; being robbed; having your house burn down; and, natural disasters. My own struggle with complex trauma – “little t trauma” – is the result of prolonged trauma that is interpersonal in nature, and likely occurred at a key developmental period (early adulthood, in my case). Since it is not included in the DSM, there are few workbooks that even mention it, let alone offer resources to help recover from it. But, I eventually found one that does: The PTSD Workbook (second edition), by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

I’m not as far as I’d like to be into the workbook, but I find that digging into traumatizing experiences is not something I care to do daily. But, so far it has been helpful to address it head on. Recently, I completed one of the exercises in which they instruct readers to “[t]hink of another person who has gone through a similar event. Knowing now what most helped you survive, what would you say to that other person?” I don’t think that I followed the instructions, but I ended up reflecting on something much more powerful. I ended up rewriting my trauma narrative, albeit an abbreviated version.

Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Let me give some context. In the process of naming the trauma, I have closed my memory around all that was taken away from me in the process of completing my PhD and obtaining my current tenure-track position. I entered my PhD program in sociology as an activist with a desire to study racism in queer communities using qualitative methods. I figured sociology would be more likely to open doors to gender studies, sexuality studies, and even student affairs than the other ways around. A desired joint PhD with gender studies was discouraged. A desired graduate minor in either sexuality research or gender studies was discouraged. An intended dissertation in trans health was discouraged. I also learned to self-police my interests; for example, I selected a qualifying exam in social psychology rather than gender, sexualities, or race/gender/class/sexualities. I left graduate school with a PhD, trauma, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a cute boyfriend, expertise in medical sociology using quantitative methods, and an acute awareness that I must hide any activist work or community service. The 28-year-old me was hardly an older and wiser reflection of the 22-year-old me.

That is, in my efforts to identify just how traumatizing graduate school was, I have focused almost exclusively on the negatives – what I have lost, what I compromised, what dreams have been dashed for the sake of job security. This has been a necessary step for me to stop denying how bad grad school was and blaming myself for the trauma. But, the unintended consequences of this focus is that I have lost sight of the ways in which I did survive and thrive, pursued my dreams and values, among other positive highlights of those six years. A while ago, I tried to write a positive-focused complement to the trauma narrative, and only came up with missing the excellent restaurants in Bloomington, IN and the friends that I made there. I also met my now-fiancé there, who moved to Richmond, VA with me. And, my excellent training – despite the compromises I made – opened a number of doors in terms of jobs and professional networks. So, hey – at least I don’t regret my time there. But, that effort felt like settling for an otherwise traumatic experience.

So, back to the prompt from The PTSD Workbook. I began my answer to the question about what I would advise to others, presumably to prevent being traumatized, with: “In the thick of [grad school], I attempted to maintain activities, relationships, and projects that were not valued by my program, but that fed my spirit nonetheless.” From there, I listed example after example of the things in which I was involved during my time in graduate school. Contrary to the sentiment that I left graduate school anything but a sexuality scholar, I identified plenty of examples of the ways in which I clearly demonstrate active involvement in this subfield. I published two articles on sexualities that were co-authored with people outside of my university; in fact, my advisors only became aware of these papers upon noticing them on my CV. I also started one on trans health late in grad school, which was finally published in September 2015. As the founder of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy – an initiative through the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality as UCSF – I organized a few events to promote sexual literacy on campus, including a conference on transdisciplinary approaches to sexuality research. I attended a few conferences and workshops in the field of sexualities. And, I also was involved in service on campus and in the community that promoted community-building for LGBTQ people, as well as healthy relationships in the queer community. I could go on…

In essence, I rewrote my trauma narrative. In this narrative, I didn’t sell out, I didn’t allow others to dictate my career, and I wasn’t powerless. Rather, this was a narrative about pushing back against mainstream expectations in sociology to build my career as a scholar-activist whose work focuses primarily on sexualities. This narrative allows me to recall ways in which I defined my career for myself, with necessary compromises along the way. Would the trauma have been worse if it weren’t for feeding my soul with sexualities work and activism? Or, was the trauma the result of defying mainstream expectations in sociology by pursuing such work? I’m not certain at this point, and cannot actually say what could have been. But, I’m in a better position to say what actually was. Yes, I was traumatized; but I was no passive victim.

I hope through speaking openly about the trauma, about the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me, and the training that attempted to steer me away from studying my own communities to make it easier for current and future marginalized grad students to weather the challenging circumstances of grad school.

How I Became An Intellectual Activist

Ford panel

I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school.  This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early.  Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline.  The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.

At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.”  My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me.  I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months.  (Can you imagine it?  I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)

“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia

Activism In Childhood And College

My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK.  My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].

I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it.  Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

(Source: The Retriever Weekly, UMBC)

As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.

Graduate School As Trauma

Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.

Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.

When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:

  • First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
  • Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
  • The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
  • The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.

Conditionally Accepted in Academia

I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.

Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.

Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.

Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership.  Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.

The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism

I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.

Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.

So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.

But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.