A Queer Confession: Academia Made Me Conservative

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.

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a-w-strouse

Like most of my scholarly projects, it began as a joke. I had just entered an English doctoral program, where my fellow students hotly protested the blood drives held on campus by the Red Cross. As a gay man, my heart bled with the crusaders, who opposed the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on donations from men who have had congress with men.

But, again as a gay man, I recoil from groupthink with Pavlovian predictability.

My new program placed me smack-dab in a crowd of radical queer compatriots, and I instinctually cringed about jumping on the gay-blood bandwagon. Suddenly, a wicked impulse seized me. I started drafting an essay in support of the FDA’s embargo, which appeared as an op-ed in The Advocate.

With a lust like de Sade for unfettered reason, my essay gorged on intellectual perversity. The essay did not reflect my actual views but merely celebrated rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake. Soon, however, I grew ever more skeptical about the leftist activism so prevalent in the humanities. My whole life, I have espoused progressive views — but graduate study steadily drove me to conservatism. At first, I performed conservative poses only in order to resist the tedium of conformity, but soon those postures seduced me, as they provided a resource for dealing with some of the excesses of leftist thought.

Let me clarify what I intend by “conservative.” I proudly pay my union dues, and I cohabitate with another dude. And I write plenty of poems about sodomy. Most citizens would register me as a New York City liberal, and right-wingers might denounce me as a bohemian. But friends have cautioned me about my old-school rep, and some of my colleagues have condemned me as a conservative — a word that they use as a slur. It seems that, in the academic cloisters, moderates look like reactionaries. So when I say that the university made me conservative, I mean this literally. Academic culture has defined me as such. And as the liberal catechism teaches, people tend to conform to the categories placed upon them. Slotted as a conservative, I became one — that is, in the sense that Roger Scruton defines the term: someone who believes that they have inherited traditions worth hanging on to.

I consider my conservatism a queer positionality for three reasons. First, it arises not essentially, but in response to social norms. My conservatism responds to the culture of my department, which sees the “good, beautiful and true” as oppressive. But it does not seem truly conservative relative to the culture of my hometown in Appalachia, which sees English professors as propagandists for decadence, decline and decay. Second, it finds expression in camp — in rhetorical pranks that decline sincerity (like this sonnet). And, third, such an ambiguous stance defies partisan classification and often incites phobia and panic. Someday I hope to make this positionality more legible by writing about my coconspirators in the secret subculture of queer academic conservatives. But to make my own Brexit from theoretical exposition, let me turn to my story proper, and let me tell, as a cautionary tale, how I came out to myself as an academic conservative.

First Flowerings

I began to feel the latent stirrings of my tendencies during my last semester of doctoral course work, in a seminar on textual criticism (i.e., the tricky process by which “Old, learned, respectable bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines / That young men, tossing on their beds / Rhymed out in love’s despair”). My classmates, like the lovers of Yeats’s poem, despaired of ever arriving at any certainty in editorial matters. But I found myself proposing that, at least, we can accept the basic existence of facts. “Some things,” I said, “are true, like that we are here in Manhattan.” This naïve statement turned me into an object of pity and derision.

Another student insisted, “But there’s no such thing as facts! Everything is just a social construction!” And my professor more politely offered, “There’s no guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow.” Horrified, I realized that no other member of this graduate-level university course would dare to defend a priori truth. At this moment, I experienced my first full-fledged conservative yearning: “If I ever have children,” I promised myself, “then I must homeschool them — to protect them from this nihilism!”

Mind you, I understand that culture inflects knowledge and that humans participate in the creation of facts. But — call me old-fashioned — I still assume that truth exists (perhaps beyond our grasp) and that scholars ought to quest for truth (even if futilely). Whereas one of my previous articles cites Saint Augustine ironically (as an argument for queer identity), now I took honest refuge in the Bishop of Hippo. In Against the Academicians, Augustine eloquently responded to those who claim that humans can never know anything for certain. Augustine pointed out that such a claim must call its own certainty into doubt, thus nullifying itself and demonstrating that reason demands faith.

During this first flower of my conservatism, I started to craft a dissertation prospectus, and my interest in theology irked some of my medievalist co-workers. Christian doctrine, as you can imagine, plays no small part in the culture of medieval Europe. And as a scholar of medieval literature, I feel comfortable saying that no full account of the subject can ignore its Catholic context. In any case, my dissertation, like most of my scholarly projects, began as a joke. I proposed to examine the ways that premodern theologians and poets thought about language using metaphors of the foreskin.

The topic titillates me. Yet I also consider the project swishy in its ambitions, since it cruises the locker rooms of literary history, peeping at the ways that male poets related to one another by way of the prepuce — a tissue that queerly belongs to, but elides, the phallus. I know that certain queer scholars have called my relationship with theology “reactionary,” while theologians are just as likely to consider my project perverted. Maybe publishing offers some degree of protection. But it seems as though there is no way not to offend somebody.

Reflecting on how some queer scholars dislike Augustine, my ears became more attuned to such biases. Teaching a class on Chaucer last semester, I noticed that several of my students felt free to describe Chaucer’s religious references as “weird.” And I noticed how many of my students share the same lukewarm prejudices and postmodern platitudes. Like the student who announced in my linguistics class this semester that she disliked a certain medieval devotional lyric because “I don’t like anything that’s religious.” I noticed, too, how few of my students converse with the ancient spiritual traditions that might provide some electricity for defibrillating contemporary culture.

And — though I feel nervous about saying this publicly — I also noticed that my Muslim students, most of them quite pious, rarely suffer from such clichéd thinking. In my Chaucer course, one such student earnestly investigated Chaucer’s abiding love for the Christian stoicism of Boethius. This student, in an email, recently prayed for me, writing, “God reward you with good and make your studies successful!”

This prayer fills me with fear and trembling. This prayer makes me regret the flippancy with which I have participated in the culture wars, and it makes me wonder how a belief in revealed truth might redefine what humanists think of as successful studies. Too much of my own work — shaped by the fashion for partisan scholarship — has promoted cynical, one-sided mythologies instead of seeking a genuine encounter with the summum bonum. But many conservatives partake of the same type of cynical mythologizing. And my student’s prayer reminds me that successful scholarship means trying to escape the trap of easy binaries by queerly accepting ambiguity, ambivalence and mystery.

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.

On The Conservatizing Effect Of The Tenure-Track

Reverse Tenure

Over the summer, I met with a colleague who works at our university’s Center for Civic Engagement.  We talked about recent and upcoming vacations, life in the city, and finding community on campus.  Eventually, she shifted the conversation to asking how she could better support me as a faculty member, in particular, in helping me to actually utilize the Center’s resources.  Since we first met, back when I interviewed for my current position, she has known that I am activist at heart, and wish to engage the campus and local communities in my research and teaching.  But, now starting my third year at the university, I give the same excuse for not doing so: fear remains a part of my everyday reality as a tenure-track professor.  She understood because I’ve emphasized that I would be slow to adopt community engagement in my work; but, she also asked what, if anything, can we do to change the culture that steers junior faculty away from relevant, accessible, and creative work.

I will acknowledge that my fear and anxiety are on the extreme side relative to the average tenure-track professor.  I readily respond to reassuring statements such as, “you’re doing fine,” pointing out, “but, I’m a Black queer tenure-track professor who blogs critically about the academy.”  My identities and my politics were known to my department and university upon interviewing and ultimately hiring me.  I will admit to a modest amount of paranoia, but I ask that we also be honest that racist and homophobic biases play out in unexpected and subtle ways.  (That is, my paranoia isn’t so unreasonable considering there are interpersonal and institutional factors that actually disadvantage me professionally and personally.)

More generally, I bear the burden of fear and doubt because the institution itself does not explicitly reward activism, advocacy, and community engagement.  I appreciate informally being told teaching a community-based learning class looks good, or that open access research is the way of the future for scholars.  And, at a minimum, there is little sense that such efforts would hurt one professionally (though I remain skeptical when such claims are made regarding activism).  But, formally, these initiatives are not valued; they are not explicitly mentioned in the tenure expectations outlined in our faculty handbook, nor is there a longstanding tradition of favorably evaluating community engagement and advocacy.  As I told my colleague, it’s great that the Center offers so much to faculty who engage the community in their work — even offering a small stipend to those who go through training on community-based teaching; but, short of the institutions explicit valuing of such efforts (i.e., counting it toward tenure), only a few brave souls will venture into them.

Beyond my frustration with the inconsistency between formal values and informal values, I am annoyed at the obvious contradiction between the university’s claims to promote diversity, accessibility, and community engagement and its actual practices.  Like many colleges and universities, my institution has made clear that it wants to change and improve the world; doing so has required changing itself, its mission and values, and its practices.  I certainly applaud the university for the changes it has made, especially within the past five years.

But, short of explicitly supporting junior faculty who aim to engage the community, and promote diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, it facilitates a conservatizing effect of the tenure track.  Absent of messages to the contrary, the traditional expectations are echoed loudly: “keep your head down”; “don’t rock the boat”; “publish or perish”; “avoid service until after tenure”; “be quiet“; “know your place.”  And, besides being apolitical, seen-but-not-heard, publishing machines, junior faculty are pressured to conform to the tried-and-true approach to get tenure.  Thus, on one hand, while touting change and all of their efforts to promote it, universities are also producing cohort after cohort of junior scholars who may avoid making change.  For many of us, this comes after years of “playing it safe” in graduate school.  And, I fear, for many of us, we become so accustomed to conforming and suppressing anything deemed too radical that we simply keep doing so beyond tenure.  I’m not entirely optimistic that radical professors “come out of the closet” the day they receive the good news.

I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into the trap of fearful conformity.  I came in like a lion, roaring that I would only do the tenure-track my way. But, right on cue, I became a meek lamb, obsessing over self-presentation, avoiding certain forms of service and advocacy that I deemed too political or radical, and fighting so hard to stay visible and relevant to my discipline.  Recently, I’ve even grown tired of hearing myself verbalize fear that I’d be denied tenure over what I write on this blog.  (And, really, the joke is on me because everyone seems to know who I am and what I value, but the university keeps inviting me back each fall.)  But, the conservatizing effect will remain for new faculty until universities explicitly value community service, social justice, and advocacy.  Perhaps universities would change a lot faster if they didn’t implicitly pressure faculty to conform and avoid change-making.

Dear Department, I Quit.

The following post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who writes about her growing frustration with her colleagues and the culture of her department.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (http://bit.ly/1voIkjv)

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Dear Department, I Quit.

Dear Department,

I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t literally quit. You pay me a pretty decent salary. I’m not really trained to work in the real world. And for the first time in my life, I have dental benefits.

Don’t think that means, however, that I haven’t spent the majority of the past two years thinking about quitting. The fact that I don’t love my job – or even like it most days – as a professor has been one of the biggest shocks of my professional life.

In retrospect, the revolving door of junior professors who filled my position then abruptly left for the 3-4 years before I accepted it should have been a warning sign. As should have been the sheer number of new colleagues who stopped by my office in the first three months of my job to reassure me that we weren’t that dysfunctional – we were just experiencing some challenges.

I can’t actually quit. But here is my notice that I figuratively quit. I will give you the work that is required of me – the courses you assign me to teach, and the one committee on which I am required to serve – but that’s it. No more volunteering for extra committees. No more organizing events. No extra assistance for the graduate students you send my way for just a bit of extra help. No more consoling the ones who feel abused. No more listening to gossip in my office, helping to smooth hurt feelings, or nudging department politics.

Instead, you get the bare minimum. Like so many of my senior professor colleagues before me, I have decided to make my career all about me.

I quit because the burden of teaching necessary to effectively run our program falls on me and my other junior colleagues. I am sick of being part of a college where teaching is valued only as lip service, one where the reality is that everyone seems to expend more effort trying to figure out how to get out of teaching than that actually exerted in the classroom. I used to love teaching, but your hatred of it is bringing me down. It is spilling into my experience and ruining one of my favorite things. I refuse to let this happen anymore.

I quit because of the burden of service and administration that has been place on me. Or rather, I quit because of your lack of gratitude for the service that I provide when ostensibly I am protected from such service until tenure. A simple “thank you” or “good job” would go a long way, probably with colleagues of all ranks. I am sick of receiving no mentorship in how to perform these tasks, but then being criticized for doing them “incorrectly.” Last, I am sick of being told that I have no idea how good I have it as an assistant professor, and how this is the best phase of my career.

I quit because of the condescension I receive toward my rank from those above me. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it is like to be a senior professor. I would appreciate it if my senior colleagues would acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to be a junior professor in 2015. Tenure is no longer guaranteed. Grant success rates for my field are at an all time low. My interdisciplinary research (allegedly all the rage right now) is difficult to publish, but my tenure expectations are the same as my colleagues with more traditional research programs. The administrative burden for professors is higher and higher as work gets delegated to us from above (but the administration bloats at the same time). My tenure standards don’t take this into account either. I will spend one-third of my career paying off the student loan and credit card debt I incurred in graduate school. My stress over this environment is dismissed as me being silly.

I come from a generation that increasingly values a life beyond my career. This does not mean that I am less dedicated than the (mostly white men) colleagues who have historically walked these halls before me. Academia as a profession, like many others, is suffering from an epidemic of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Being shamed for looking after myself is not only inappropriate, but also disgusting.

I quit because of the everyday sexism I have to experience. Including that from senior female colleagues. I am so fatigued by this that I don’t even have the emotional or mental energy to say more.

Last, I quit because I am sick of the politics. I knew that academia was cut-throat business. I knew it valued the individual over the team. What I didn’t know is that I would be surrounded by coworkers who seem to spend a substantial proportion of their time endeavoring to screw each other over. Who create back-room deals that serve to exacerbate the gross inequities of academia. Who, then, act as though my junior colleagues and I are naïve when such deals (which usually only benefit senior colleagues) upset us.

I quit. I am tired of forcing myself to engage in a system where the only path to personal happiness and health seems to be to disengage. So I give in. I disengage. From now on, you only get the most basic things I have to give, and nothing more.

I don’t know what my long-term future entails for my career. Maybe it is time to start looking for a new job. I see so many academic blogs and Twitter accounts describing how terrible academia is…. It is nearly impossible to believe my situation could be any better somewhere else. Perhaps the one advantage to this experience is that it leads me to consider new career opportunities post-tenure. For now I’m going to focus on my own little world, and making it as positive as I can. What do I want my research to look like? What kind of instructor do I want to be? Who do I want to be, beyond a professor? Now that I’m (figuratively) quitting, I should at least have a lot more time on my hands to figure this out.

Introducing: Write Where It Hurts

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 8.25.00 AM

On June 2nd, three sociologists — Xan Nowakowski, J. Sumerau, and Lain Mathers (see their biographies on their site) — launched a new blog, Write Where It Hurts, that will feature blog posts for and by “scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service.”  In this guest blog post, Xan, J, and Lain describe their findings from an informal study of scholars’ sense of personal connection with (i.e., subjectivity) or detachment from (i.e., “objectivity”) their scholarship.  These findings led them to create Write Where It Hurts (WWIH), which they describe in more detail below.  Readers are encourage to submit their own guest blog posts to WWIH (wewritewhereithurts [at] gmail [dot] com).

Write Where It Hurts

Like every scholar we have ever encountered, the three of us were initially drawn to teaching and research in hopes of understanding experiences within our own lives. While we have met people focused on lab treatments of biological material, evaluations of organizations, social inequalities and patterns, and survey design, in each case we came upon people who sought to make sense of things that were relevant to their personal lives. Through casual conversations with our colleagues, we noticed a discrepancy among their stories. Some of these people admitted this aspect of their life course by telling others and us directly how aspects of their life led to their work. Others, however, often claimed the opposite; for example, some people we met claimed to be “objective” despite making claims about elements – like race, class, gender, or other social issues – that influenced their social lives. As a result, we decided to explore this discrepancy further.

The Sources Of Scholars’ Research And Teaching Interests

To further our casual observations, we began directly asking fellow scholars how their personal experiences influenced their teaching and research at conferences, in departments, and on online forums. After learning in graduate programs that we were expected to attempt to be “objective” and pursue science from a “professional distance,” we sought to find out whether people actually thought such a position was actually realistic. We learned very quickly that the same discrepancy we saw in personal relationships and official training programs existed in the response of academics in various fields. Some of them quickly noted how, for example, a fascination with animals as a kid, a search for truth as a church member during childhood, or an experience of marginalization shaped their interest in academic work. Others, however, found many ways to argue that their own focus on this or that subject had nothing to do with their personal life, and was rather simply a “creditable” and “important” area of work. Not surprisingly, these informal conference talks revealed some interesting patterns in who said what about “objectivity.”

Digging deeper, we found three patterns in our informal study. First, most of the people who claimed “objectivity” or a “lack of emotional investment” occupied privileged social locations (e.g., white, male, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, religious, or normatively-bodied). Yet, most of the people who admitted the “subjective” nature of academic work and disclosed the “personal” experiences that fed into their research and teaching interests occupied at least one marginalized social location. Second, the people who claimed “objectivity” tended to be doing work in mainstream areas of scholarship long defined as politically and academically legitimate, whereas the people who were most often open about the “emotional” aspects of their work typically worked in newly emerging, controversial, and/or emotionally charged areas that conflict with established political and academic traditions. Finally, we noticed that academics in mainstream fields and privileged social locations often made claims about personal aspects of their lives without ever being accused of doing “me-search” (i.e., heterosexuals using lab samples to make claims about sexual norms, or religious people using surveys to talk about religion), while these same people used “me-search” as a type of slur targeted at anyone doing innovative work or occupying marginalized social locations.

Along the way, it became increasingly clear to us that academic programs, departments, and traditions encouraged people to pretend they were “objective” or “rational” despite the “subjective” and “emotional” aspects of all teaching and research. In fact, we listened as countless people in varied academic fields explained the ways that talking about emotions or personal experiences were devalued, marginalized, and attacked within their training programs, tenure-track positions, and academic organizations. Familiar with long traditions of critical pedagogy and scholarship, we began to recognize this culture of silence as a way to maintain academic hierarchies concerning who could speak, what could be said, and what “counted” as legitimate teaching and research. As many activist and academic communities have done throughout ourstory – including Conditionally Accepted in relation to marginalization within the academy – we sought to find a way to pull the emotional and personal elements of teaching and research out of the shadows and into the light of day.

To this end, we began hosting panels at conference meetings wherein people were encouraged to share the personal and emotional side of their research and teaching experiences. In so doing, we realized very quickly that many people longed to have space for sharing these stories, building community around these issues, and gaining resources and support for doing emotional and personally relevant work within and beyond the academy. As a result, we decided to create such a space in hopes of providing an opportunity to discuss the emotional and personal aspects of our work and in so doing, begin dismantling the myth of “objectivity” promoted in our disciplines and used to marginalize many academics and fields of study. Last week, we launched such a space in the form of a blog community entitled Write Where It Hurts, and we invite all interested parties to become involved in this conversation.

WWIH Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Write Where It Hurts Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Creating A Space To Write Where It Hurts

Write Where It Hurts serves as a public forum for discussions about the personal and emotional aspects of teaching and research. Specifically, we offer and collect contributions from scholars in different fields teaching and doing research in areas that are personally relevant to them, emotionally charged in relation to academic and broader social norms, and/or marginalized or defined as “me-search” by people attempting to enforce notions of “objectivity” predicated upon privileged social status and approved areas of study. Further, our site offers resources, tips, and strategies for navigating emotional and personal tensions, traumas, and concerns we face as teachers and scholars facing systemic inequalities within and beyond the academy, and critiques of “objectivity” claims made by members of privileged groups to justify hierarchical notions of what “counts” as legitimate teaching and research. Finally, our site displays both open and anonymous examples of these dynamics and the ways people manage them in hopes of providing a supportive community and public dialogue about these issues, which may be used when scholars attempt to disrupt the culture of emotional and personal silence promoted throughout academic operations.

We chose to call the community Write Where It Hurts for three specific reasons. First, it is noteworthy that people are only accused of doing “me-search” or “subjectivity” when they study things that are controversial or innovative, and thus these people are subjected to painful experiences with other academics simply for daring to be different types of teachers and researchers. While white males (or members of other privileged groups) who use surveys to measure gender or race are also doing personally relevant research based on their own emotional and social experiences, for example, they are freed from such critique due to their privileged social positions in ways that minority scholars are not. Minority scholars and those utilizing non-standard methods must therefore subject themselves to pain (or write where it hurts) to build careers within inequitable academic traditions. We thus focus on Writing Where It Hurts to draw attention to this imbalance, and begin the process of dismantling these inequitable patterns of academic interpretation and practice.

Second, we recognize long standing traditions wherein revealing marginalized narratives, experiences, and ways of knowing disrupt the silence necessary for maintaining inequitable systems.  Following Feminist, Critical Race, Queer, Interactionist, Nonreligious, Indigenous, and other Critical traditions, we thus recognize the power of expression to disrupt existing norms and patterns that serve to marginalize and silence some preferences and peoples for the sake of the elevation of others. In such traditions, there is a long tradition of writing about the pain, sharing the hurt, and expressing the struggle to build community, facilitating recognition of unconventional practices and beliefs, and finding support in the face of dominant ideologies and structures. We thus encourage others – both within and beyond the context of our blog, Conditionally Accepted, and other forums seeking to better our current academic structures – to Write Where It Hurts to both allow others to recognize the existence of such pain, provide support for those who have been convinced they suffer alone, and establish narratives and resources for challenging the inequalities at the heart of such pain.

Finally, our experiences (both informally and formally) offering panels on the emotional aspects of teaching and research have shown us that there are many people wrestling with these issues on a daily basis. In many cases, people are facing and navigating personal trauma, experiences with harassment and discrimination in varied forms, and other difficult life experiences in an attempt to further understanding of understudied aspects of this social experience that effect multitudes of people. In so doing, these people are drawing on their own pain to teach the world about sensitive and controversial realities, but in so doing, they face their own pain and trauma in every aspect of their professional lives. As such, we call our project Write Where It Hurts to celebrate their efforts, and create a community where these efforts are validated, recognized, and given voice in ways that are often to hard to find in existing academic programs, departments, and traditions.

In closing, we invite all readers to check out our blog community, and contribute in any way they see fit. Write Where It Hurts is committed to inclusive and supportive dialogue where all people are recognized and respected regardless of perceived difference in social location, and where the only requirement for membership is supporting the equitable treatment and affirmation of all people seeking a more just and egalitarian world. As fans and supporters of Conditionally Accepted, we are delighted to have the opportunity to share our project on this platform and with its readers and contributors, and we see our own project as an emerging complement to the work done by this site. To this end, we encourage all readers to consider Writing Where It Hurts on this site, our own, and others while doing your part to affirm others who openly engage in emotionally and personally relevant teaching and research geared toward the betterment of our shared social world.

“Lighten Up!” Why Andrew Joseph Pegoda Is So Critical Of The World

AndrewAndrew Joseph Pegoda (@pegodaaj) is a PhD student in history at the University of Houston (full biography at the end).  He maintains a blog where he writes about history, racism, slavery, culture, the media, education, pedagogy, and writing.  Andrew has kindly shared his reflections on being critical of the world, which stems from his high expectations; but, he remains capable of appreciate beauty in the world.

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“Recognizing Beauty: Why I Am Critical and Have High Expectations,” by Andrew Joseph Pegoda

For an hour yesterday I was laying on my stomach with my arms stretched out and holding perfectly still inside a 3 million dollar MRI machine at M.D. Anderson located in a multi-billion (trillion?) dollar complex in the Medical Center located in Houston, Texas, in the United States, on this pale blue dot. I’ll be in this same machine next Friday, too.

While I was inside this machine, I was thinking about how absolutely incredible it is that we have such technology, made possible by science and research. That I’m inside a machine that can–to an almost perfect degree–measure and map everything in the area being scanned, my left hand in this case. That I have insurance that will cover this can and insurance to cover whatever needs to be done. And that the science exists to easily cure all kinds of things. And this made me think about the dozens of MRIs I have had the past several years, and the brain surgery, the heart/lung/chest surgery, the pelvis surgery, the growth hormone shots I took for a decade, and so much more. Science and doctors perform miracles all the time, and this is beautiful.

And this got me to thinking about how I am occasionally criticized for being too critical of the United States and focusing too much on the racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, ablebodiedism, and anti-intellectualism, for example, that bother me so much and personally affect everyone. All of this is true and needs attention, much attention. I focus on the “bad things” in part because too few do. As long as I am pointedly asked: why do you focus on “so and so,” such a focus in necessary; however, this is not to say, I do not recognize the beauty that is in the world.

The fact that humans have mastered and understand, use, and reproduce complex systems of signs, symbols, and sounds to produce what we call language and meaning is beautiful and fascinating. That we can study the ambiguities of all of this through semiotics is a high point of human civilization.

And that I (and many others) can use this language on computers to write to world-wide audiences is a beautiful and unthinkable act looking at the scope of history.

And then I think about all of the wonderful music that is available and all of the associated special effects.

And I think about all of the other authors and texts with which this performance and ones like it that are in dialogue with each other. (For example, See Transformative Authors and Texts – One Scholar’s List.)

And we mustn’t forget to mention the phenomenal Meryl Streep. The accomplishments of Oprah Winfrey (the only Black billionaire in the United States and one of nine in the World!). Or this family and their grassroots videos and YouTube channel.

And so much more. Just by being alive and being able to read this article, which requires electricity and a computer and all kinds of specialized memorization, makes you among the wealthiest, richest, luckiest, most talented/accomplished individuals who has ever taken a breath.

I also think about how incredibly lucky I am to have such a sweet, loving, incredibly smart and beautiful “partner in crime,” the one and only Dr. Trevor Lovejoy Pegoda:

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So I hope that people can see that I am professionally critical of our society’s and world’s problems because I have high expectations and so much hope. We have so much potential for beauty. We need to use it for good, to help others. Helping and loving others, celebrating achievements, and always demanding the best and sharing everything, that’s what life is about.

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Biography

Andrew Joseph Pegoda is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) and Lecturer at the University of Houston in the Department of History. He is also a part-time instructor of History at Alvin Community College, where he teaches Texas History, United States History, and African American History. He is specializing in U.S. History using a Cultural Studies methodology with a focus on social and political minorities (namely those racialized as African American or gendered as female), cultural representations, and on the paradoxes between the proclaimed equality for all and actual inequality for many. He is also interested in digital history and digital humanities.

Jeff Kosbie On Being A “Luxury Hire” In Academia

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jeff discusses his frustration with constantly hearing that his job prospects are slim because he studies sexuality.  While typically well-intentioned, these messages from colleagues implicitly (or even explicitly) suggest that the subfield of sexualities is not of central importance to the discipline.

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On Being A “Luxury Hire”

“Just be careful — you don’t want to seem like a ‘luxury hire.’” “Be aware that you can’t get hired just for studying sexualities.” I’ve heard variants of this since I started graduate school, but especially this year being on the market. And it all comes from well-meaning people. People who really want me to get a top job as a professor. And, yeah, I get where they’re coming from. Sexuality should be central to the curriculum in law and in sociology. But it’s not. At least not how it should be. So, I need to be aware that there might be fewer jobs for people who do sexualities than for people who study federal courts or criminology or business organizations.

Strategic advice aside for a moment, I want to address the psychological impact of these messages: they really breaks you down! The cumulative impact of this is huge. It’s essentially hearing again and again that what you do just isn’t in the mainstream of the discipline. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me until some recent discussions about diversity and microaggressions. I shared some of my experience hearing these comments, and then it really hit me, wow that hurts.

I’m never anxious or stressed, even when I “should be.” But this year I’ve become anxious. A lot of the anxiety comes from how fundamentally the job market has changed since I started grad school. Anyone with my current research and publication record would be getting several interviews on both the law and sociology teaching markets in 2006, when I started grad school. Subject area aside, the expectations for getting a job have changed. It’s like I got to the finish line, only to find that the finish line had moved. So, the fact that I’m facing uncertain job prospects plays into the anxiety. But, some of it also comes from the cumulative impact of these comments.

The flip side of hearing that you could be a “luxury hire” is that if I get a job, the implication might be that it is because I study sexualities. The fact that I do really good work becomes secondary to the fact I add an extra “luxury” to a department. And somewhere implicit in this is some comment on my identity as a queer scholar. The people making these comments mean it as a comment on my scholarship, of course, but it’s hard not to take it as a comment on my identity. It can feel like a comment on whether queer scholars belong in the heart of the academy at all.

Now, of course, everyone who has said this to me has meant well. They have all had my best interests at heart. Maybe some of them didn’t think sexualities should be central to the discipline (law or sociology), but most of them did. Most of the people saying this to me support my work, want me to succeed with it, and think it is important. They saw themselves as giving me strategic advice.

So, part of the challenge is how to impart this strategic advice without the microaggression that devalues my work and identity. And I want to recognize that strategic advice is important! Even if the cumulative impact of hearing it is harsh, the truth is that I don’t know of any law school that is hiring just for law and sexuality. Some sociology departments hire for sexualities, but those positions are few and far between. So yes, any scholar studying sexualities should probably address other academic areas, as well. If I were mentoring a new graduate student interested in sexualities, I would be remiss not to mention that.

What Are the Real Concerns Behind This Strategic Advice?

There are ways to give this advice that reaffirm the importance and centrality of sexualities to the disciplines of law and sociology. For starters, at least reaffirm that you think that sexuality is or should be central to the discipline. That actually goes a long way. There’s also a difference between hearing “it’s okay that you research law and sexuality, but you need to do something mainstream as well” and “how can we package your work to show how you speak to more mainstream concerns with a unique and important voice because you research law and sexuality.” The latter implicitly values sexualities and asks how we can make it relevant to the mainstream in a way that the former message doesn’t.

One of the most common concerns about studying sexualities is that I might be too specialized. But this is not unique to sexualities. Every scholar faces this concern. We all have to be specialized enough to have command of some area and to add our unique insights. But, we cannot be so specialized that we are only speaking to ourselves. We certainly need to be able to teach classes that are much broader than our individual research. So like most graduate students, I can benefit from mentoring on how to talk about how specialized my work is. But the concern should not be that I’m too specialized because I study sexualities. People who study tax law might be too specialized if they can only teach a particular class on corporate tax and nothing else. The real concern is my ability to use my research on sexualities to speak to other literatures and to teach classes. So let’s talk about that, and not whether sexualities is too specialized.

What about the concern that I won’t find a job? There are just not enough (or any) jobs in law and sexuality. But this concern also isn’t unique to sexualities. People doing legal history or sociology of culture also face this concern. For almost all of us, it probably does not make strategic sense to only apply to jobs in our subfields. We need to think about how we can apply to jobs beyond our own subfields and make strategic decisions about how broadly we want to try to do that. Sometimes it means taking two runs at the market: once with a more focused, only-in-my-subfield approach, and a second time with a broader anything-I-can-conceivably-get approach.

I guess it comes back to the idea that there’s a big difference between being told: “the discipline doesn’t support sexualities as much as it should, but you bring a unique and important voice to the core of the discipline because you do sexualities, so let’s figure out how to sell that” versus “you need to recognize that sexualities isn’t valued as central to the discipline and you could be seen as a luxury hire so you need to do something to address that.” All of my core advisors fall into the former, far more supportive and helpful camp. But I’ve heard advice from the latter camp enough that it’s still a strong current.

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About Jeff

Jeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University. He will defend his dissertation and receive both degrees in Spring 2015. Jeff’s research theorizes law as a field for constructing and contesting identities around gender and sexuality. He studies how law creates and perpetuates inequalities and how it is used to challenge inequalities. His dissertation uses original data to tell the history of the major LGBT legal organizations. Drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, he argues that internal organizational debates drive strategic decision making processes at these organizations. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern University, and The Graduate School at Northwestern University. Jeff’s website is at jkosbie.com.