25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True

Source: PhD Comics

Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career.  Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself.  The training wheels are off.  It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.

Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic.  It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons.  Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.

  1. The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
  2. One goes where the job isPeriod.
  3. All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
  4. People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
  5. You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
  6. Academia and activism do not mix.
  7. Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
  8. One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
  9. Teaching is not as important as research.  Really, we do it just to get paid.
  10. Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
  11. Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
  12. Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
  13. The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
  14. Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods.  Can the latter even be trusted?
  15. One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
  16. Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
  17. Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
  18. Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
  19. If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
  20. Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
  21. Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
  22. No one will get mad at you for blogging.
  23. Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
  24. Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
  25. Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.

Academia: Uncharted Territory

Belle Isle

…to go where no queer has gone before…

There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia.  Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career.  While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define.  The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor.  But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.

The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender.  I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure.  Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example.  Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors).  For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain.  Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.

As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling.  Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others.  Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women.  Women of color know well the status of being a token.  Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever.  While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.

Uncharted Territory

To be completely honest with you, I am scared.  I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search.  Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality.  There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics.  The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.

Strike one: I am black.  I am queer.  I am fat.  (That’s already 3 strikes, right?)  Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism.  Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog).  I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars.  But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.

This is uncharted territory.  That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man.  With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics.  With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways).  But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.

Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available.  On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism.  As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models.  I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today.  At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism.  I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility?  If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?

Paving The Way

I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general.  In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC.  I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program.  After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture.  My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way.  Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.

paving the way

paving the way

While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students.  I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded?  will I ever give the suits a rest?  do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself?  A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless).  Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.

But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark.  I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success.  But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together.  I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security.  But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.

How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors?  Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”?  I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model.  I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general.  I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure.  I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia.  But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream.  I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.

Giving Up On Academic Stardom

Source: thebiosciences.com

I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.

I drank the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”

When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.

The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom

source: teen.com

I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!

Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committee members’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, that I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken queer Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.

Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass all distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my communities.

Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.

When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.  Ok, end of rant.

Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

Me - Presentation 1

Around the time of my birth, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins began writing, and ultimately publishing, an essay on being an “outsider within” sociology.  In her 1986 piece, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Collins writes about the difficulties Black women scholars — specifically sociologists — face in reconciling their personal experiences, identities, values, and perspectives with those that dominate academia.  In particular, “to become sociological insiders, Black women must assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” (p. 49).  Almost 30 years later, I struggle with similar challenges at the beginning of my academic career.

In graduate school, I learned several harsh lessons about what was entailed in being a good scholar:

  • Academia and activism do not mix.  And, one of the primary aims of academic professional socialization is to “beat the activist” out of you.
  • Good researchers do not simply study oppressed populations.  Rather, one adopts a valued, mainstream framework (e.g., social psychology, medical sociology), and just happens to focus on a particular community or population.  Studying race, or gender, or sexuality, or *gasp* the intersections among them are deemed “narrow” research interests.
  • Qualitative methods, particularly approaches that give voice to and empower oppressed communities, are devalued relative to quantitative approaches.
  • Good research is objective.  One should not even write in the first person in articles and books!

I bucked at the pressure to “go R1.”  I publicly declared I would not put another day of my life on hold just to attain or keep an academic position.  And, I have dared to talk openly about inequality within academia.  You would think that I would be passed all of this, no longer carrying around bitterness or resentment about what my graduate training was or wasn’t.  It seems my journey as an outsider within has just begun.  Collins argues:

Outsider within status is bound to generate tension, for people who become outsiders within are forever changed by their new status. Learning the subject matter of sociology stimulates a reexamination of one’s own personal and cultural experiences; and, yet, these same experiences paradoxically help to illuminate sociology’s anomalies. Outsiders within occupy a special place – they become different people, and their difference sensitizes them to patterns that may be more difficult for established sociological insiders to see (p. 53).

I welcome what my unique perspective stands to offer sociology and academia in general.  Even at this early stage, I feel my research has covered issues that seem so obvious to me but, to date, has not been examined in prior research.  However, the downsides of the tension that Collins mentions — the frustration, self-doubt, alienation — continue to take a toll on my personal and professional life.  Can this tension ever be reconciled?  Collins suggests:

Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bona fide, ‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline” (p. 53).

Wow, damned if you do…  This is why Collins advocates for greater acknowledgement, recognition, and use of the black feminist perspective in sociology.  She argues that outsider within perspectives should be encouraged and institutionalized.  In general, scholars, especially outsiders within, should “trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 53).  Without this change, scholars continue to rely on research and theory that largely excludes, or even distorts, the experiences and values of oppressed people.

I suppose some progress has been made since Collins wrote this article.  Indeed, more and more sociologist recognize black feminist theory as an important perspective.  But, many marginalized scholars, like myself, continue to feel conditionally accepted in the profession.  Our success and relevance, even our livelihood, seems to depend on the extent to which we assimilate to white, masculinist, cis- and heterosexist, and middle-class ways of thinking (and being).

More Than R1, One Year Later

Lake at University of Richmond

University of Richmond lake.

Last year, I wrote blog posts recounting my experiences on the academic job market and the ultimate decision to accept my current position. The job search was tough, as it is for any job candidate. But, I had the added stress of being pressured to pursue jobs at research-intensive universities or, more colloquially, to “go R1.” Now, one year later, I am content with my decision, and am optimistic that I will love my job once the adjustment period has ended. But, it has not been a “happily ever after” fairytale (yet).

The Job Search

As a rising high school senior, I had my heart set on attending a small liberal arts college (SLAC) within my home state. On a tour of one campus, my mother teased me about wanting to be a “big fish in a little pond.” But, as she saw the small scholarships that these expensive schools offered, she began encouraging me to look at state schools. I resisted initially, but fell in love with UMBC and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which offered a full scholarship. I decided to attend UMBC, becoming a medium-size fish in a medium-size pond (or, so it seemed from my perspective). I tucked away my liberal arts dreams for future chapter of my life.

As an eager, yet naïve first-year graduate student, I announced my plan to become a professor at a liberal arts college to an advisor. I was encouraged to “aim for R1” instead because that career path would be the hardest to obtain; if I changed my mind, other paths would be easily pursued. After a couple of years in grad school, I learned such a strategy was not enough; one also had to keep liberal arts dreams secret, for some advisors might invest less time and energy into your training. The more I opened myself up to research-intensive training, the more I felt favored by the faculty, and the more doors opened to me in the department and beyond. At times, I was convinced an R1 job was best for me, even if it meant being miserable, unhealthy, overworked, and devoting my energy on research at the expense of teaching and advocacy.

When I successfully pushed to go on the job market, I was asked, “you’re not applying to liberal arts jobs, right?” The possibility seemed quickly and offhandedly dismissed. By that point in my training, I had become so successful at conforming that I meekly responded, “right.” But, when I secretly applied to a liberal arts job, which erroneously automatically sent requests to my advisors for recommendation letters, my interest in liberal arts schools was outed (again). I was hesitantly allowed to apply to liberal arts schools, then to interview with them.

By November 2012, the call with the offer for my current position came. Once I was off of the phone with the dean, I paced around my apartment, crying happy tears, tears of relief, and chanting, “omigod omigod omigod.” This was my first job interview, and I fell in love with it on the campus visit. But, the celebration would have to wait. I was encouraged to meet with each of my four advisors about taking the job. Their advice ranged from “do what you want, it’s your damn life!” to “decline the offer” in hopes of something better (i.e., an R1 job). I had to go to family and friends if I wanted to share my excitement about landing the job that I wanted.

Am I A SLACer?

In addition to the pressure from my department to continue my search in hopes of an R1 position, I found little help in assessing if a liberal arts position would be a good fit for me. It seemed no one could tell me what working at a liberal arts college would entail, except the potential risks: becoming irrelevant in the profession; slowing down on research; and, being at a disadvantage if I applied for an R1 job later on. I struggled to find role models and stories of sociologists who worked at liberal arts colleges, particularly those who remained productive as researchers and visible in the discipline. How could I justify accepting my current position without having attended or worked at a liberal arts college in the past? What made me think I was a SLACer at heart besides my college dreams as a naïve 18 year old?

Fortunately, I found a few blog posts that helped me to make my decision. I found that research actually does occur at liberal arts colleges! But, many of these stories and essays hinted that some scholars know deep down in their heart/soul/mind that they are a SLACer. I have to admit, I did not feel naturally inclined toward any particular career path, whether R1, liberal arts, or maybe even applied jobs. I applied to both liberal arts colleges and research-intensive universities, as I assumed most candidates did in this tough job market, and entertained the possibility of shifting to applied jobs if tenure-track positions did not pan out. It seemed that so much stock has been placed in a R1/liberal arts dichotomy, but I could not find a professor who was truly an R1er at heart.  Maybe most people follow the expected R1 path without questioning it, or accept other positions if an R1 job does not come along?

Personally, the R1/liberal arts distinction was an inaccurate way of categorizing job possibilities. I was pretty damn sure that working at an R1 meant continued mental health problems, feeling disconnected from the community and advocacy, and working in a cut-throat and competitive climate. But, I was open to an R1 job that would afford a sense of synergy between my teaching, research, and advocacy – the qualities that attracted me to my current position. And, I needed to be in a place that, at a minimum, would not force me to hide that I am a blogger. I doubt I would ever find a fitting R1 job, but I am also aware that not ever liberal arts job would be a good fit either. In other words, there are so many other factors that make up “fit” other than, or maybe even instead of, the R1/SLAC distinction. Ultimately, I made a relatively blind leap of faith, resigning myself to the possibility that this would be my mistake to make, if it were a mistake.

One Year Later

One year into my position, I am definitely content, and optimistic that I will love this job once the adjustment period ends. And, I lived happily ever after…

Well, not quite. The conciliation prize from my graduate department that, “ultimately it is your life,” has arrived. No one has questioned my decision to accept my current position since I began. Well, no one except for me. Every once in a while, I hear my advisors’ voices in my head (which, I heard jokingly stated as a goal of graduate training) saying, “you know, you could still ‘go R1.’” And, when the spring semester ended, and I turned my attention (almost) exclusively to research, those voices grew louder. That is, along side amplified anxiety about tenure expectations and fears that I would not maximize my first summer on the tenure-track.

Unlearning the R1 bias has been a slow process. That question, “are you sureeeeee????” has prevented me from fully appreciated my current position. I am at the start of what ideally will become a very productive research career – shouldn’t I be at an R1, then? Did I take the easy route? What will I miss out on from the R1 world? I hate it, and I am disappointed in myself for letting questions that are no longer asked externally to continue to bounce around in my head one year later.

One mid-summer day, I went for a hike alone. My partner and I had a silly fight; rather than resolving it, I fled to clear my head. I stopped to sit on a rock, either to pray or meditate or some combination of the two. The first thought that popped into my head was to resolve things with my partner. I was being silly and stubborn, wasting time away from rather than with him. Then, I asked, “please, once and for all, let me have some sort of sign that I am on the right (career) path.”

Since I have been so critical of my graduate school experience, am I a coward for choosing against an R1 career, in which I would mentor future scholars? Uh, I have had it with this doubt, and guilt, and bitterness! I opened my eyes, and decided to call my partner to reconcile things.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA

On my phone, I saw that I had an email from a grad student thanking me for my post, “More than R1,” and being a role model for her and other grad students who hope to pursue liberal arts careers. Wow. I had my answer. I can mentor grad students from anywhere; and, the bonus for me is being able to do so without the departmental constraints, norms, and traditions of a graduate training program. More importantly, if I finally conceded to the pressure to “go R1,” even if only self-imposed nowadays, I would be asking my partner to move and start his career over again. Since he is returning to school this fall, it would be incredibly selfish of me to interrupt his life (again) to appease the internalized R1 bias. There really are more important matters in life. I have a job that I like, in a place that I like.  Why the hell would I walk away from that, especially for a job that I already know will make me sick, dispassionate, and cranky?

So, I do not regret my decision. Unfortunately, I still carry some resentment that my search had to proceed as it did. But, I am working on relinquishing that resentment, and all of my bitterness from graduate school in general, to focus fully on appreciating this chapter of my life. I am fortunate to have a job, a good job, a job that I like. And, I do recognize that I received great training overall, which opened multiple doors to me. I hope, though, that graduate students are no longer pressured to pursue one career path over others, or feel that information about alternative paths is not available to them. We are overdue for becoming realistic about (and better prepare students for) the current job market, anyhow.

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

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is the fourth and final installment of my blog post series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  In this series, I’ve written about the alt-ac options in my main field, folklore studies (see Part I); the process I’ve undergone of recognizing that maybe I want to step back from academia (see Part II); and the “trying on” of this new identity at a conference (see Part III).

Now I’ve gotten to the point where stepping back to gain some distance from and perspective on academia has seemed like a great idea, even if it’s only for this summer. But where to go from here?

As far as concrete planning-for-the-future type stuff, I’m still adjuncting. I actually really like the school where I’m teaching now, but I don’t like the fact that I’m stuck with the adjunct pay scale, lack of benefits, and inability to plan beyond one semester ahead. But, I’m not taking on a huge course load, so I’ve got time to explore other things that I want to do with my life, potentially as career options. I plan to do more writing, and to build a business as a sex educator. I’m already doing informal relationship and sexuality counseling among my peer group, and teaching gender studies classes on related topics. Might as well give it a go and see if I can get paid to do it, right? Plus it’s the kind of career that I can do as part-time as I want while I’ve got other things on my plate, since it seems to involve a lot of freelancing and getting my own gigs.

I’m in the rare and fortunate position of not needing to be the breadwinner in my household at the moment, so I have more freedom than most adjuncts to poke around and figure out what I want to do with my time (for which I am grateful, very very grateful). I don’t see myself not working for long periods of time. I’m taking on paid writing jobs this summer, despite needing a lot of downtime to recover from near-burnout. But, I want to choose a potential next career with intention and clarity – and that can take time.

Additionally, since I know that I’m luckier than many adjuncts who struggle to make ends meet, or other folks on the post/alt-ac spectrum who don’t have a lot of leeway between ditching the ivory tower and needing another income source, I want to do a little more volunteering. You know, give back to the world, improve my community. Thanks to a Twitter conversation with Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) of From PhD to Life, I determined that as much as I make myself out to be a cranky introvert who retreats as often as possible to her hermit-cave, I have a deep need to connect. I need my work to make meaningful contributions to my larger community, not just my academic community. Sex education gives me the chance to do that, especially since I plan to take on some volunteer gigs, both to gain experience in this profession, and because there are a lot of people who really need accurate, thorough sex and relationship education, even as adults.

I don’t anticipate that this will all be smooth sailing, though. Even if I’m starting to deal more healthily with the emotional fall-out of an unexpected career change that felt like a failure, I’m sure there are plenty of struggles ahead. For one thing, my career trajectory involves writing, and that means facing a lot of potential rejections. I’m still working through what my time seeking academic employment means and whether there was anything I could’ve done better or differently to get a job (imposter syndrome, anyone?). And, I worry that a thoughtless or judgmental word from a colleague could send me reeling. I’m still not sure what this makes me (post-ac? alt-ac? something-else-ac?) and how it’ll influence my relationship with academia in the future.

A lot of my thinking is, unfortunately, cyclical. I hope that I’m not shooting myself in the foot by publishing this kind of blog post online, under my real name. But, would I really want to work for an institution that doesn’t want honesty or critical awareness from its employees? If a university wants someone working for them who’s never questioned academic politics, they’re going to end up with someone who’s naïve, dishonest, or perhaps both.

Another instance of cyclical thinking is that if I’m not feeling passionate about my research right now, I should put it down and come back to it when I’m feeling recharged. But, is walking away for a time going to reinforce feelings of not belonging, and cause me to feel more disconnected? I worry that the more time I spend disengaged from academia, the less I’ll want to return to it, and that’s a bundle of mixed emotions right there, even if I just spent this blog post series establishing that I don’t know if I want to be on the academic career track I’d started out on a decade-plus ago.

I’m no stranger to the cyclical “if they don’t want me, I’m not a good fit for them” line of thought. I’m an outspoken feminist who works on various gender and sexuality topics that some people find off-putting. There are probably some workplace cultures – both academic and not – where I wouldn’t be welcome, whether because I’m a woman, or because I work on these various gender and sexuality topics, or both. I try not to be too in-your-face in talking about sex and, of course, I keep this kind of discourse professional, but there are still places where that’s taboo. And I don’t want to have to hide such a huge facet of my identity or my interests just for the sake of fitting in.

So…that’s where I am. I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me reach a point where I feel I can step back from a career path that hasn’t been working for me, despite the fact that it’s really scary to do so. My husband, my family, and my dance community have been especially awesome, not only for supporting me through this tough journey, but also giving me constant, joyful reminders that there’s more to life than having my nose stuck in a book.

Preparing A New Course VS. Impostor Syndrome

Ideally, developing a new course will entail excitement about all of the possible topics, readings, discussions, and assignments.  (I said “ideally,” ok?)  It usually does for me, but that little bit of uncertainty, which probably fuels others’ excitement, expands into all out impostor syndrome.  Unfortunately, that leads to a much longer and tortuous process, and sometimes continues to shape the course throughout the semester.  In this post, I hope to offer a few tips for others who may struggle with impostor syndrome, particularly while developing a new course.

The Impostor Professor

First, let me briefly give some personal background.  I taught two semesters, followed by a summer course at another university, during my third year of graduate school.  Thanks to a fellowship, I did not teach again until I started in my current position.  So, that is one year’s worth of teaching experience, followed by three years without teaching; in hindsight, being rusty and inexperienced, while adjusting to a new job and place was not ideal.  I did take two of the three courses that my graduate department offered toward a Preparing Future Faculty certificate.  I dropped the certificate because my plans for the final course’s project fell through, and I found no resistance to giving up all together.  But, I hear that those two courses are still more training that many scholars receive on teaching.  Still, I feel I was not adequately prepared to to hit the ground running in the classroom.

My process for developing new courses has been the same (i.e., a shit show).  I start by panicking — what could I possibly teach about X?!  Then, I collect and scour as many syllabi on X as I can find on the internet and from colleagues who are willing to share.  Using these as models, I narrow down the topics of each lecture, and then the assigned readings, based on what it seems are the core subjects.  In the back of my head, I know that about 25% of the topics have never crossed my mind, so I will have to prepare those lectures from scratch (i.e., learning about it first, then frantically deciding what I will teach).  Indeed, those days bring stress and anxiety right on schedule.  “I do not know the first thing about this subject/don’t care!”  Panic.  Then, search for documentaries; then, relevant activities.  If all of the above fail, I can turn to discussion or group work.  No surprise, these classes are hit or miss.  And, the classes that go ok actually feel as though I got lucky.  Ok or awful, I usually return to my office after class feeling unqualified or incompetent, and may or may not fight the tears that threaten to come.

Source of Self-Doubt

I attempted to change my approach when preparing for this semester’s courses over the summer.  The biggest, semi-successful change was to start course preparations earlier in the summer, rather than waiting until August.  I planned to flip my fall and spring schedules: spend at least an hour on teaching in the morning, and devote the rest of the day to research.  That did not quite happen, but I got an early start.

The other change was to devote at least some time in the course on topics I study, find interesting, and/or am passionate about.  I did, but, because I still started out using textbooks and others’ syllabi as my guide for the core subjects.  Half of the first draft of my syllabus for my Medical Sociology course contained subjects I know/care little about.  When a colleague challenged me to focus more on the course I want to teach, two sources of my self-doubt were revealed.

First, which I have already noted, is setting a standard that my new course must meet.  I start the preparation process by letting others’ expertise (or so I assume) dictate what I should teach.  Thus, I create a challenge for myself to push my expertise to reach others’ standards.  At an unconscious level, I fear that others will look at my syllabi and deem them unacceptable or sub-par, and dismiss my expertise on the subject.  I never start out asking my own expert self, “what should I teach — what are the most important topics and what skills do I want my students to learn?”

The second source, which surprised me, was a fear that letting my passions and interests guide the preparation would lead me to a course deemed biased or “too activist” by other scholars.  For my Medical Sociology course, I initially hesitated to give more than a day to LGBTQ health because no other instructor or textbook gave even a passing reference to LGBTQ communities (though, maybe in their coverage of HIV/AIDS).  Could I justify a lecture on sexual orientation and health, and another on transgender health?  My colleague reminded me that, if I decide against covering trans health in my course, my students will likely leave college never learning about it (or trans communities in general!).  I am guilty of letting what I deem as the mainstream standard trump my interest in teaching students about LGBTQ issues, and intersectionality, and fatphobia, and sexual health, etc.!  If including these subjects is “too activist,” then excluding them is reproducing the status quo of higher education.  It is my duty, in my humble opinion, as an educator to introduce my students to these systematically overlooked communities and issues.

Excusing Impostor Syndrome From Class

From my inexperienced, still self-doubting perspective, I offer the following tips for developing new courses:

  1. Remember that you are an expert.  At a minimum for some instructors, this means finding confidence in knowing that you know more about the material than your students.  Even if it is brand new to you, you have developed skills to be able to teach anything (within reason)!  In a pinch, you probably have a few tools in your teaching toolkit: class or small group discussion, activities, in-class assignments, documentaries, relevant current events, etc.
  2. Start course preparations from your expertise.  Academic freedom, y’all!  That is, assuming you were not assigned to teach a course that is far outside of your expertise.  One approach that helped me as I finally crafted a Medical Sociology syllabus that actually reflected my areas of expertise was to jot down all of the topics that I knew I could teach at that moment with little preparation.  My list did not exhaust the number of days in the semester, but it came pretty close.
  3. Be practical — start choosing readings from what you have already read.  One mistake I often made was searching for the readings — what are the articles that I kept seeing on others’ syllabi?  Sure, there may be some classical pieces that you really should assign.  But, the others could be contemporary examples, or counterarguments, or even personal narratives.  By letting others’ models dictate what I should assign, I added to my frantic lecture prep days the task of reading all of the articles that I assigned that I had never read before.
  4. Start course preparations from your passion.  Let go of the myth of the dispassionate, objective instructor.  Embrace what you know you could talk about for 75 minutes straight.  Your passion may rub off on your students, and their piqued interest will further fuel yours.  If not, at least you will avoid the combination of not caring about the topic and seeing bored faces before you for 75 minutes.
  5. STOP using others as a model, at least from the beginning.  If you can, maybe check out what other instructors cover if you are stumped on the last few topics to cover or readings to assign.  If many instructors go through this same fumbling, impostor syndrome-fuelded course preparation process, we probably cannot trust others’ courses to serve as a model.  One major mistake I made was to attempt to replicate the breadth-focused approach of courses taught at research-intensive courses; my institution would prefer I cover fewer subjects, but in-depth.  Another mistake I have made is using seasoned scholars’ courses as a standard to achieve — people who have been teaching as long as I have been alive, with ample opportunities to perfect their courses.  It is a simple (and expected) fact: this new course will be shitty the first time, but I can improve it in future semesters.  Finally, I do myself and my students a disservice by using “traditional” (i.e., exclusive) approaches; I have an opportunity to model for my students (and maybe other instructors) that certain topics are relevant and important for a course.
  6. Ease up on self-evaluation.  Course evaluations come at the end of the course, not the beginning.  And, yes, while they are imperfect (and somewhat biased), their purpose is to give feedback to improve the courses for the next time you teach them.  It will not be perfect the first time — or ever, really.  And, improvement as an instructor is valued (e.g., tenure and promotion)!  Hopefully, you will start out with your own syllabus and setup an exciting semester, with room for improvement in following semesters, rather than setting up a test of your qualifications.
  7. Become a better teacher.  At a minimum, ask a friend or trusted colleague to observe one of your classes, and offer feedback afterward.  In turn, attend her class so that you can see another model for teaching.  (It seems what makes this hardest is that we teach in a vacuum, never seeing what other people do in the classroom!)  If you have to be observed for formal evaluations, plan to have someone who will not evaluate you observe your class before these formal observations.  Attend on-campus workshops about teaching and pedagogy, as well as local and national teaching conferences.  It can be refreshing to realize so many instructors struggle with self-doubt about teaching.

That is all I have for now.  Please offer other teaching suggestions either as a comment, or even a guest blog post!