Home » Academic Freedom
Category Archives: Academic Freedom
Note: this blog post was also featured on Diverse Issues.
On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.
Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?
Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.” (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.) Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.
I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.
“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!
And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.
Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.
Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.
Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.
So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.
I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.
I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:
- Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
- Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
- Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
- Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
- Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
- Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
- Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
- Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking. Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
- Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.
“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me“
Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.
That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.
In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.
I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”
First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.
On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.
Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?
A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.
The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.
The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.
Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students. The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.
Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)
I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.
Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.
Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.
Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger
“Lower your voice.”
“Keep your head down and your mouth shut.”
“Don’t rock the boat.”
“You need to tone it down.”
It seems the universe has been dead-set on silencing, immobilizing, paralyzing, and deradicalizing me since my birth. In simply being myself, which happens to entail being outspoken about injustice, I have been labeled uppity, radical, provocative, militant, showy, hypersensitive, and a trouble-maker. In choosing to pursue a career in which I make change from within the system, I have struggled much of my life with finding the right balance of keeping my position and speaking out. Worrying about what others think of me, specifically of losing out in major ways, I remained in the closet until age 17.
You would think it would be smooth sailing since then. Actually, the further I have gone in my career — college, graduate school, and now a tenure-track faculty position — the more anxiety I have felt about how I present myself to the world. At the same time, the “innocent” requests to shut up, hide, and stand still have increased. Even at my quietest, most inauthentic, and politically inert point, I still receive these request. It seems the universe won’t be satisfied until I completely disappear. Or, maybe become a white straight man who upholds the status quo.
Recently, I ran into a friend who relayed to me other friends’ concerns that I am “too out there” in my new job. Their thinking, along with everyone else’s it seems, is that tenure-track faculty should be seen and not heard. Particularly for me as a young Black queer man, in an interracial same-gender relationship, living in the South, I should be ever vigilant about how I present myself to the world. Duh. I did not secure this job without doing that for years in graduate school. I did not burst through my university’s doors declaring I would radically change the place. Trust me. To survive in this racist, sexist, heterosexist society, there is not a single day in which I do not constantly think about self-presentation.
When the quantoid in me lights up, I am really fed up with these requests. I have lost count of the number of times I have been encouraged, usually from a place of concern, to be quiet, tone it down, hide who I am, etc. Whatever the number, it far exceeds the times I have been encouraged to speak up, be seen, or shake things up. And, let’s count the number of people who quietly exist within the status quo. There are plenty. We can afford to have just one more person who may make herstory by refusing to be “well-behaved” and quiet.
Where is the limit on being well-behaved? Is being a good little black gay graduate student for six years enough, just til I get a PhD and a job? No? Oh — maybe it is the seven years of wearing suits that betray my genderqueer identity and stressing myself to publish in my discipline’s top journals — you know, to secure tenure. Assuming I am of the rare sort to finish graduate school before 30, that means I can finally be free to be my outspoken self in my mid-thirties. That is, you know, banking on tomorrows that are not promised to any of us.
And, outspokenness and activism are not the only things that are policed. It is my identities as a queer person of color that are seen as a threat. By entering into spaces that historically have excluded people like me, now shaping the next generation’s minds, I am a threat. I am a threat whether I hold radical politics or not. I could play it “safe” by academic standards and still be lynched outside of work because of my race. Or, I could be denied tenure — you know, because discrimination and harassment occur within academia, too. It is a damn shame, but the truest reality of them all is that my PhD merely affords me a different kind of policing of black and queer bodies.
I am tired of having to name my career path as one that seems out of the norm. I am tired of having to justify not pursuing that good, ol’ prized Research I (R1) path, or even the silent, politically inert journey toward tenure at any type of school. More importantly, in the midst of this miserable first semester, all that I do that is being read as outspoken or radical are merely strategies for my survival. I am trying to carve out space in the universe so that I can actually get out of bed in the morning to go to work.
I note the good intentions behind the requests for silent inaction. I appreciate it. But, they typically come from people who do not know me well enough to give that kind of advice. They do not know how much I really do negotiate interactions with others. They do not know how many times I have completely shutdown because something so offensive has been said and I stew in guilt for not speaking up. They do not know how many mornings I fight with my body and body image issues trying to fit into costumes deemed appropriate for professional men. They have assumed I am recklessly opening my mouth without thinking, without doing my homework to make an informed critique, and without thinking about the potential consequences.
I am not an idiot. I know what can happen to “outspoken faggots” and “uppity niggers”. In a way, I am risking my life, or at least my status and position, to prevent that for myself and others like me.
So, please do me a favor. Stop telling me to be quiet.
Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure. I
fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined). Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community. I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.
Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?
I have done it all “right.” Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal. I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week. I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule. You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.
But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values. Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break). I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests. This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list. In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans. And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).
Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally. At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.” I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that. And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”
Or, So I Thought…
So, I have done everything “right.” But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down. Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress. Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this. But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once. Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.
And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself. The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire. The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes. The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school. The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.
Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up. Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul. The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.
The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits. By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years. On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical. By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office. I began to cry on the drive home. It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.
When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story. I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now. Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time. After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.
Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.” I did not want him to go there. It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job. And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts. So, why would I be upset?
I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues! Of course, no place is perfect. And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part. But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.
It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right. First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones. This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors. Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors. Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.
Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself. I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?” The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job. And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.
Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer. Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May. It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.
Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me. I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia. But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline. Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest). And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.
Authenticity Vs. Success
Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:
Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it. As I tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules. It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals. To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.
As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand. Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well. This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:
- It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional. It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting. That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
- It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places. It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
- It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track. It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death. That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.
I could go on forever. The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things. It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status. And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.
The Role Of Tenure
Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free. If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom. I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”
- Tomorrow is not promised to me. The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right. He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college. I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
- My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision. They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
- My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations. I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago. Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
Obsessing about tenureDevoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself. Yes, blaspheme! Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals. If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others. And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
- Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right? Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever. And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises. So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.
So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.” The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success. A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction. That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful. Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.
If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model. I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers. And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself. And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia. So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.
I leave you with my current musical obsession: