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.

This Blog Is Trauma On Display

Eric - Red Scream

This is the most significant public essay that I have ever written. And, it is the most difficult for me write. I imagine by the essay’s end, some readers will feel a greater sense of sympathy for me – and, Goddess help you if you can empathize. Others may find confirmation in their assessment that I am crazy, never to return again to this site. Still others may be unmoved because what I share here is unsurprising based on my earlier writing. Let’s get on with it then.

I was traumatized by my graduate training. My six years in grad school – the journey to a PhD and the tenure-track position that I currently hold – also landed me in therapy two years after graduation. I began seeing a therapist over the summer because I have not been fully enjoying the job for which I fought so hard. For two years, I have lived in fear that I will be fired or denied tenure because of my politics, my activism, my identities, my research, my teaching – all of the very qualities that got me the job in the first place. I have experienced anxiety about how I dress, how I interact with students and colleagues, what I write on this blog, and what advocacy I pursue on and off campus. I haven’t enjoyed my job, and have rarely felt fully present at work; admittedly, I feel a creeping suspicion that I would quit before tenure if I were to continue this way.

I (re)created Conditionally Accepted right after I graduated from Indiana University in 2013. I was fed up with challenges that I had experienced, finding out later how common these barriers were. I had been through things I now know others had, as well, but without the benefit of access to others’ stories and wisdom. There is no reason why any grad student should feel as though they are alone in instances of patterned inequalities and problems in the academy.

On this blog, I have been quite vocal about these challenges. At one point, I even reflected on experiencing “grad school garbage,” alluding to trauma and PTSD. In private journaling, I noticed that I have casually used the term trauma. And, I mentioned the term in sessions with my therapist. But, it took hearing him say it for me to realize how fitting the term is for my experiences and their lasting impact.

“Eric, you experienced a trauma,” my therapist said. I rejected his preliminary diagnosis. I responded that trauma is rape, combat, or having your house burn down. Who gets traumatized in pursuit of an academic degree? Apparently, I did. Eventually, I accepted his assessment. I felt a sense of relief to have a label for my awful experiences, for an outsider to validate just how bad it was. But, it also felt (and still feels) embarrassing. Some peers loved grad school. I was traumatized by it. What’s different about me? What’s wrong with me? Why me? Was it really that bad?

In a later session, my therapist asked about the content of Conditionally Accepted, at least my blog posts. I already knew where the conversation was headed. This blog is trauma on display. Each post that I wrote, including some that never got published on the blog, risked becoming a rant about grad school. I have been stuck in the hurt for two years. My therapist suggested a trauma narrative – the telling of my traumatic experience, which I would work through with his help. This is much more productive than telling and retelling horror stories to anyone who will listen. And, it was. I filled a 70-page spiral notebook with the handwritten telling of every horrific experience, instance of discrimination, and microaggression. When I flipped through the 70 pages, I thought, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?”

What was so traumatic about my graduate training? I identified four factors that were beyond my control: repeated microaggressions; the devaluing of research on my communities (Black and queer people) as legitimate areas of study; the efforts to “beat the activist out” of me; and, the intense pressure to pursue a career that was not right for me. These factors reflect the structure and culture of graduate training. PhD or not, job or not, any time in that program would inevitably traumatize me. There is no use feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I could have done differently.

How do Black queer activists and other marginalized and radical students avoid such trauma? Maybe I will have an answer upon successfully recovering from my own trauma. I suspect having a community, supportive family and friends, and a strong sense of my values helped to prevent worse trauma. But, these clearly were not enough to prevent the trauma in the first place.

Ultimately, academia would have to change drastically. Diversity as a value would have to mean active recruitment and retention of significant numbers of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, working class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and religious and nonreligious minorities. That, and the valuing of research on and by these populations. And, doing away with the mythology of objectivity and its privileging of scholarship on and by white heterosexual middle-class cisgender men without disabilities. Activism, which has a long history in academia, can no longer be seen as antithetical to academic pursuits. In the 21st century, grad programs must prepare students for the realities of the profession and world. Too few PhDs land tenure-track jobs, and even fewer in reputable research I universities. We should be training the next generation of intellectuals for all possible academic and non-academic jobs, and to be able to respond to the problems of their day.

I am certain that I may continue to process the trauma out loud. But, as my therapist encouraged me, I no longer want to dwell on it. Rather, I want to continue to use this blog as a space to offer resources for current and future scholars of marginalized backgrounds. Maybe, just maybe, I will help one person avoid the traumatic experiences that I endured. At least let me dream of an academia that is safe, equitable, diverse, accessible, and active in the promotion of social justice.