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This morning’s tears were brought to you by the ongoing conflict between academia and activism.
About an hour ago, I decided to ask for my partner’s advice on a professional matter. Later this month, I am scheduled to give a talk of some sort at a race workshop in the sociology department at Duke University. My concern, on the surface, is time. The event is scheduled just a couple days after the upcoming deadline for accepted authors to submit their full contribution for my co-edited anthology, Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics— narratives of courage and overcoming among women of color scholars. Giving, as well as preparing, the talk means having to hold off on beginning to review the essays and provide authors feedback for revisions. That project, too, triggers concerns about time. Given the amount of work involved, the anthology has to become my sole priority for a little while. But, this is a project that will count little for tenure — if at all — and it is one that my department chair explicitly discouraged (at least while I am on the tenure-track).
What I thought was a simple practical matter — should I just cancel the talk since I feel I don’t have time? — was actually the usual internal conflict I experience between being an activist and being an academic. The question really was why the hell am I giving a(nother) talk on activism. Sure, it’s Duke — but it’s not a research talk or invited lecture. Why the hell am I working on a book to feature stories of bravery among women of color academics? Not only is this an edited volume, but it also seems to have little to do with my research program.
Maybe my department was right to criticize me in my mid-course review for failing to prioritize departmental service. Since I actually exceed the expectations for doing service in the department, it remains unclear to me what else prioritizing such service would mean. And, months after the review, in asking about it, I was told the department hadn’t yet decided what that could mean — besides pulling my weight around the department (which I do, more than I need to). I suspect it is less about serving the department, and more about prioritizing the “wrong” kinds of external service — namely, anything reflecting or about activism. Yet, here I am again, trying to spread the gospel about intellectual activism and doing “non-scholarly” work to amplify the voices of women of color academics.
I do this dance at least a couple of times a week. I’ll say “fuck it” and do work about which I feel passionate (no matter its worth to my colleagues or the Tenure & Promotion Committee); then, I’ll get spooked by something, and return to resentfully conforming. Early this week, I decided to change my mindset to be that of a professor who already has tenure, who is not concerned that the slightest misstep would cost them their jobs. Now, late in the week, I’m back second guessing giving a talk on intellectual activism — a talk I’ve already given, and that I agreed to give again months ago.
I admitted to my partner that I am tired. I am tired of trying to figure out what these people want from me to keep this job. I am tired of selling out, shutting up, doubting myself, reading between the lines, begging everyone around me to assure me that my department or university or tenure letter-writers won’t attempt to sabotage me when I go up for tenure. Logically, I am in great shape for tenure, with enough publications and good student evaluations, though it seems I could stand to cutback on service to the discipline, profession, and community. But, the biases that play out in formal evaluation in the academy are not based upon logic; so, I remain vigilant for words that say one thing and actions that say another. It’s exhausting.
Then, the tears came, surprising both my partner and me. Between sobs, I said that I was tired of second guessing doing work that is inherently about my survival and the liberation of my people. I’m tired of holding out for a department or institution to value my worth as a human being, of deluding myself into thinking I would ever get their full acceptance and validation as a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. I am tired of feeling unsettled between what is expected of me and what is exciting to me. Given the self-doubt, and censorship, and contorting, and… and… and… is it really all worth it? I told my partner that I would never wish this path on another person, on trying to survive within an institution that devalues your worth.
This morning’s meltdown confirms the importance of my work to champion intellectual activism, and, specifically, needing to give this talk at Duke (probably more for me than any audience I hope will attend). I know that I am not alone, especially in the midst of widespread political turmoil and civil unrest in our country, in wrestling with the (unnecessary) tension between academia and activism. That is why I have chosen to share this in this blog post.
I don’t have any advice to impart — yet. I am still in the thick of figuring this shit out myself. I invite you to stay tuned on this journey. Though I have a growing list of role models and sheroes who have found their way, the norm appears to be one of tension — between one’s job and one’s survival.
I have seen friends and strangers declare 2016 an awful year, from the untimely passing of many pop culture icons crucial to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, to the election of a racist rapist with no political experience and the global destruction that looms ahead. In the US, we have collectively experienced a tough year, and we have much to dread about the year to come. But, I think it would be unwise to lose hope; hope will be crucial as we dust ourselves off and get to work to save the country from itself.
One way to keep our spirits high as we enter a new year is to celebrate all of the good in our lives from this past year. Many take time at December’s close to look ahead, perhaps establishing resolutions for the new year: budgeting, losing weight, spending more time with family, taking care of one’s health, giving back, etc. But, I worry we set lofty goals for ourselves that make it easy to get down on ourselves when we fail to achieve them; and, more importantly, we become so focused on how to be better in the future that we fail to celebrate what we have already done that is good.
I believe academics are particularly hard on themselves. We achieve incredible things in our careers — publications, educating the next generation, obtaining grants, serving the academic and local community, scientific discoveries, creative works, etc. — but, the significance of these victories is undermined by an academic culture that suggests that you are only as good as your latest publication. And, the victories are so drawn out that the joy we experience is always dimmed slightly. Do you celebrate when a paper is conditionally accepted? Accepted? Forthcoming? Online? In print? What about once your department votes for you to earn tenure? Or the dean? The college? Or, the sabbatical you finally get after one more whole year of teaching?
When I graduated in early May 2013, I declined my mother’s offer to have a party to celebrate. It wasn’t “real” yet; I submitted my dissertation a few weeks later, and then defended it in June, and then completed it in July, and started my tenure-track position in August. Unfortunately, just breezing through these milestones without stopping to celebrate left me feeling weepy and ungrateful for my accomplishments by that October. I never celebrated, but I learned how crucial it was to celebrate that I was the first in my family to earn a PhD, that I am among the 1 percent of the population that is PhD-educated — and among an even smaller percentage of queer people of color to achieve such a feat, especially with a tenure-track job in hand. No matter your social location, I believe it is absolutely necessary to celebrate your successes; your institution, which measures your worth by your CV, course evaluations, and grant dollars, will never celebrate you as a living, growing, imperfect person.
Celebrate Your 2016 Victories And Failures
So, I’m taking the time to encourage my fellow academics to celebrate 2016 while also looking ahead to 2017. Right now, open a Word document. Start making a list of all that you have accomplished in the past 12 months. A few important suggestions first.
- You should probably open the latest version of your CV to remind you of all of your scholarship, courses, service, and grant activity. However, the list you are about to make should not simply be a replication of your CV. I am not encouraging listing all the ways in which you have labored as an academic; rather, I suggest listing those things that constitute a victory worth celebrating or a failure from which you will learn and grow. (Indeed, we never include failures on our CV, so that is one important difference here.) What is the backstory behind each milestone?
- Do not limit yourself to things that you produced, those things with observable results. Sometimes a publication is just a publication, but sometimes it is an important turning point in your career or even your life. Maybe not doing something was a courageous act and should be celebrated. And, starting or continuing a project is worthy of celebration, even it is not yet complete at the close of the year.
- Include professional and personal victories. Did you find a new bae? Got married or had a kid? Did you end a relationship that hasn’t been good to you for years? Did you find god or a new god or confirmed that you don’t believe in god? Maybe it’s not a singular event, but an ongoing process like prioritizing your self-care and/or family.
- Suspend the voice of judgment as you make this list. It might help to think of yourself in the third person, since we are often better at recognizing others’ strengths than our own and are our own biggest critic. This is absolutely not the space to deny the significance of our efforts or its importance to us, or to add “but, you know, it wasn’t the top journal in my field,” or any of that academic impostor syndrome BS. In fact, this very exercise is intended to counter the voices that aim to motivate you by tearing you down.
- Be sure to acknowledge whether and how others supported you in achieving your victories or helped lessen the blow of your failures. We get by with a little help from our friends. Feeling a boost in self-worth after celebrating your victories is just as important as the boost you feel from active gratitude. You are great, and you are loved.
- Save this list. If you hit low points during 2017, you may want to revisit this list. I hope what you will feel is a sense of accomplishment, courage, and perseverance. I hope you will review the list and think, “damn, I did a lot!” and “wow, I was able to get through that.” Because, you probably did.
My 2016 Victories And Failures
You’ll notice that I did not recommend sharing this list with others or publicly. I’m not sure that such a decision will change the outcome. I think it is useful for me to do so here as a demonstration, but, you may feel as I did when I read Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog post, “A Year in the Life of a Tenured Professor: 2016 in review” (that is, left asking yourself what you are doing with your life — or, maybe what I’m doing with my life). But, I do think it is important that we promote our accomplishments because it is professionally required and necessary for the advancement our respective communities.
You are welcome to review my list, but I ask two things. First, please do not judge me. I am not perfect, and I am figuring this shit out as I go. Second, do not slip into the comparisons game. There is no one way to be an academic, or even a successful academic. We are all on our own journeys, with our distinct career paths and visions. You may not want what I want; we were likely dealt different hands to play in life, including my privilege where you are disadvantaged (or vice versa) and your supportive community where I am isolated (or vice versa). Since I am floundering, trying to find my way as a scholar-activist, and still suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and IBS and complex trauma, I strongly discourage comparing yourself to me. You don’t know enough about the crap I have endured, the poor decisions I’ve made, and the privileges I am afforded to make a realistic comparison. This list is intended to be a model for the exercise only — not a model for being a successful (or unsuccessful?) academic.
With that said, here I go. In 2016…
If I measure the success of my year solely by the number of articles I had published, I have nothing to show for my life during the 2016 year. But: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson.
- My partner and I bought a house. We’re now homowners! Fun picture below. (Yes, we are both named Eric.)
- There’s been talk of getting married, but neither of us care for wedding-planning and probably will get hitched primarily for tax and legal purposes since little else will change. I’ve definitely been thinking about this since we moved and had a recent health scare that landed my partner in the emergency room. Given the intense narrative of a fairy-tale wedding that one is supposed to dream of since childhood, I’ve questioned what it means that we’re pretty “meh” about it. It’s only been a few years that we are even legally allowed to wed, and I’m ambivalent about needing the state to recognize us as a couple. Inclusion in an oppressive institution won’t liberate us as queer people. But, not marrying has real legal and financial consequences. Kinda hard to toss and turn at night over egg shell or cream (those are colors, right?) colored napkins when the more pressing concerns are so practical in nature.
- To compliment the traditional Western approach to treating my anxiety and related health problems (i.e., taking Lexapro), I began acupuncture, getting massages, and meditating with some regularity. I also began seeing a nutritionist and fitness trainer to work on my overall health. I tried my hand at yoga for a few weeks, but got busy as my research picked up again in the fall. At present, I still suffer symptoms of anxiety and can’t fit into my dress clothes; but, I am eating better, feel calmer, and can see some nice muscle development.
- I am still pretty isolated on campus and in the community. I have my partner as my main support network, a few close friends, and family only a 2-hour-long drive away. And, I’ve become part of a writing group comprised of several women of color plus me (get in where you fit in, right?), and have Dr. Krystale Littlejohn as my West Coast accountability partner. And, of course, I have many fleeting but not insignificant connections via social media. So, while I may lack plentiful in-person friendships, I rarely feel longing for connection with others.
- After a late 2015 publication of our article on transphobic discrimination and trans people’s health, Dr. Lisa R. Miller and I co-wrote a research brief for Scholars Strategy Network, “Discrimination as an Obstacle to Well-being for Transgender Americans.” Subsequently, I wrote my first op-ed, featured in USA Today: “Transgender Americans deserve protection.”
- I had three articles accepted for publication (and five rejections). They will be published in early 2017. One is “Sexual Health and Multiple Forms of Discrimination Among Heterosexual Youth” in Social Problems, and another is “Sexual orientation differences in attitudes about sexuality, race, and gender” in Social Science Research. The third, on measuring discrimination, will be published in Social Currents. I have almost published every piece of my dissertation! Currently, I have four papers under review.
- I began collaborating with Dr. Nao Hagiwara, who works at our neighbor school (Virginia Commonwealth University), on a series of papers on the health consequences of discrimination. The aforementioned Social Currents papers is the first of many to come. Thanks to Nao, my informal connection to her Discrimination and Health lab will be formally recognized with an affiliate faculty position with her department (VCU Department of Psychology) for at least the 2016-2017 year. And, I have Nao to thank for reigniting my passion about discrimination research; after several rejections, I was beginning to lose hope and interest, which made the research that was moving ahead in peer-review more interesting. But, I’m not done with you yet, discrimination and health! There are several pieces of the puzzle that I plan to identify and put in place in this subfield over the years to come.
- I continued to reclaim my voice as a critical sexualities scholar, reviving a paper I killed after years of a tortuous collaboration with a neglectful, semi-abusive former advisor. I have returned to my research roots, revisiting the very topic that drew me into academia. What was my MA thesis nearly a decade ago is now published, with two follow-up papers currently review, and the idea of a book pinging around in my head. On paper (i.e., my CV), the outsider just sees one publication; in my heart, I feel a sense of liberation and empowerment after years of losing my way and my voice.
- I successfully taught a second offering of Sociology of Health and Illness, appropriately refocused on social determinants of health (my area of expertise) away from medial sociology (not my expertise). However, I stumbled in places during the semester. There remains an overall disconnect between the sociology students and the pre-health students, with the former already equipped with proper sociological training and the latter being introduced to it for the first time. And, this time around, I had two students with preexisting conflict that erupted in the classroom, permanently damaging the classroom dynamic; it remained a good, discussion-filled class, but many students noted holding back for fear of tension, judgment, or even being yelled at or mocked by fellow students. I was not equipped for such classroom dynamics, but learned that I have to be, especially teaching at this small, status-obsessed, hierarchical university.
- I had a successful mid-course review, which I needed for the year-long research leave that I am currently taking. My research productivity is high, with the only expectation that I publish work that I have begun since working at my current institution. My teaching is critical, effective, and organized, criticized only by biased intro level students who feel any discussion of oppression is too much. My subsequent third year review was also successful, recognizing new research that is already under way.
- I have become more vocal as an advocate on my campus. I wrote two op-eds for the student newspaper, The Collegian: “A love letter to Richmond students of color” and “On being trans and non-binary at UR: one (sort of closeted) professor’s perspective.” I wrote two blog posts following my university’s mishandling of two sexual/intimate partner violence cases, one critical of the institution and the other praising the women survivors and advocates who demanded change. To my relief, they sky didn’t fall, the pink slip was never sent, and tenure wasn’t preemptively denied. But, I did not expect to see my blog post featured in print and TV news! Given my LGBTQ advocacy, (to my surprise) I was honored with the Office of Common Ground’s Ally of the Year award. My voice and advocacy have reemerged after years of being beaten down by the anti-activist sentiments in higher education; fortunately, these efforts have been recognized and appreciated by others and aren’t the professional liability I had feared.
- I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart her Sociologists for Justice initiative to use sociology as a vehicle to end racist police violence in the US. We got a Facebook page going and had a successful, well-attended forum at the American Sociological Association meeting held in August. But, we have gotten busy, and things haven’t progressed as quickly as we hoped. We have proposed another forum to be held at the 2017 ASA meeting, so this work is not ending — rather, we’re just getting started.
- I launched the Sociologists for Trans Justice initiative, which I currently co-lead with Dr. Laurel Westbrook. We held a successful, packed forum at August’s American Sociological Association meeting, from which we set an agenda for the initiative and created several subcommittees. This initiative proves to be a fruitful one for eliminating transphobia in sociology, advancing trans scholars, and further developing sociological approaches to trans studies.
- My sexual violence advocacy has expanded a bit beyond blog posts (like this one on sexual harassment at a sociology conference I attended and this one on trigger warnings). I have a limited capacity to pick up another cause; indeed, I gave up on trying to make Sociologists Against Sexual Violence a formal effort because I simply didn’t have the time, energy, or buy-in from other people. So, I resorted to using energies I already have, namely a call for blog posts on sexual violence. Several blog posts on the subject will be published in the spring.
- My baby (this blog) was invited to move over to Inside Higher Ed as a career advice column for marginalized scholars. We began as a biweekly column (publishing every other week), and then moved to weekly. Then, we began publishing a double feature of two blog posts on the first Friday of every month. Now, we have grown so big that we have nearly a six-month backlog of blog posts to be published. While this is a good problem to have, I am hoping that we can find some way to publish even more frequently to alleviate the long lag and capitalize on the growth of the blog.
- I have shared my voice and experiences on other blogs, including, “Black feminism will save my life” on The Feminist Wire, “On Finding A Feminist Academic Community” on Feminist Reflections, and three pieces on Write Where It Hurts — “Radical Reprioritizing: Tenure, Self-Care, and My Future as an Intellectual Activist,” “Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative,” and, just last week, “Activism as Expertise.” I also contributed to a chapter on LGBTQ people of color in academia in Tricia Matthew’s brilliant text, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.
- I continued to speak publicly about having suffered trauma during the course of my graduate training, and have made progress seeing a therapist and working with a PTSD workbook to process my experiences and move toward rewriting my trauma narrative.
- With co-editor Dr. Manya Whitaker, I started an edited volume project called BRAVE, which will feature the stories of courage and overcoming of BRAVE women of color scholars. I was discouraged from pursuing this project (especially while pre-tenure) because of the labor involved, but pushed ahead because I felt I needed to hear these stories of academic bravery. What may not be professionally sound on the surface may be exactly what is needed for personal, emotional, spiritual, and political survival. Alice Walker says it best: “In my own work I write not only what I want to read — understanding fully and indelibly that if I don’t do it no one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it to my satisfaction — I write all the things I should have been able to read.” In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983, p. 13).
- My academic justice advocacy has continued to expand beyond blogging, including a panel on protecting public scholars from backlash at February’s Sociologists for Women in Society annual meeting, and a talk at Hamilton College in April and another at the American Sociological Association annual meeting media pre-conference in August on using blogging for social justice in academia. Dr. Jessie Daniels and I are organizing a panel on protecting public scholars from backlash at the 2017 American Sociological Association meeting.
Overall, I am rediscovering my voice and reclaiming my path as a scholar-activist. It feels as though I crossed another hurdle to becoming an unapologetically vocal advocate for academic justice. It opened some door that has been closed for a while; and, I became a kid in a candy store for a while, starting more causes than I have the capacity to pursue. I still waver between feeling I am not doing enough to make a difference in the world and feeling overwhelmed by the causes I’ve picked up to do just that. Nevertheless, I continue to dream of a Conditionally Accepted book or some other book project about academic justice, a talk show — “Academic T with Denise” — featuring notable scholars and activists, and starting a center or organization devoted to the cause of academic justice. But, I realize that earning tenure is hard enough without trying to save the world on the side, and even harder when that work is seen as antithetical to your scholarship.
In reviewing this long ass list, I feel confident in concluding that I had an incredible year. The judgy, elitist academic will only see a gap in my publications for the year 2016. (Shhh! I have at least three that will be published next year.) But, I know in my heart that I have achieved a lot in the past twelve months — much of which is infinitely more important to my personal life and well-being than my job, and some which will never appear on my CV but is significant nonetheless.
Yes, happy new year. But, also happy old year! We’ve all got a lot to celebrate.
Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.
“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.
This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds. With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities. Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.
“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.
No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke. Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe. I will give two brief examples.
Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor. The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former. But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology. Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.” I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter. And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much. So, I dropped it.
Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in. So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general. I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia. For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism. A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”
My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences. Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”
Activism, however, was a dirty word. Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior. Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship. Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.” As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers. I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired. Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.
Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise. Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective. And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship. What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)
I will use myself as an example. My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups. In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination). In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group. The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.
As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work. That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars. That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.
For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting. Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself. But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield. Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives. In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists. What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting. My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.
As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice. Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome. I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.
What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people. On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy. Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system. These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.
The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem. That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.
Activism and academe do mix. They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world. One is not superior to the other. In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible. And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.
I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest. (No, actually, I will say that.) But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.
“Facts about the Black vagina — the hardest working vagina in America.”
A few days ago, I watched in awe as activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw read her poem, “The Black Vagina,” at a production of The Vagina Monologues in Harlem, NY. Unfortunately, I did not actually observe from the audience in the infamous Apollo Theatre. Rather, it was featured on V-Day: Until The Violence Stops – a documentary about productions of The Vagina Monologues and other activism to end violence against women around the world (see the trailer here).
Eve Ensler’s play-turned-global-movement impressed me. But, observing Crenshaw – looking fierce in a beautiful red gown ready for some glamorous Hollywood awards show – speak truths to what so many Black women in America know, I went back to my usual place of self-doubt: what am I doing with my life? Here was the scholar who developed the theoretical framework of intersectionality and, today, a scholar-activist at the forefront of #SayHerName movement to end violence against Black women. And, without a hint of doubt, without a word of apology for her presence or explanation for why she wasn’t doing research instead of working in the community, there she was on that Apollo stage singing the praises of the Black vagina.
I spent the rest of the day deep in reflection. “I’m not doing enough as an activist. Why do I even call myself an activist, a scholar-activist, an intellectual activist?” Unfortunately, the question — am I enough — is a commonly occurring one for me. And, I realize not feeling [X] enough — skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, Black enough, gay enough, feminine enough — is not unique to me. But, there is something unique about my sense of being inadequate as an activist — and it’s not just that I simultaneously worry that I’m too much of an activist, that the work that won’t count toward tenure may actually cost me tenure.
The work to which I am referring is this — this blog, the column on Inside Higher Ed, the talks I’ve given, panels I’ve served on and organized, the long-term effort to call attention to and eliminate injustice in academia. Even as I write what sounds impressive, I feel as though I padded the previous sentence to silence the voice that once asked, “so, all you do is blog?” My critics, largely contained in an anonymous wiki for cowardly trolls, accuse me of being overly dramatic, preachy, self-righteous, and whiny; worse, they suggest that my sense of injustice in academia is really just the product of mental illness or even mental disabilities (putting it politely relative to the more offensive language they use). This is a form of gaslighting, and it has proven somewhat successful. But, the trolls aren’t alone in leading me to question my academic justice work. It doesn’t count for tenure (and, realistically, is potentially a liability); and, my graduate training served to “beat the activist out” of me because activism and academia supposedly don’t mix.
In other words, there are two powerful messages that come from my training, the expectations of me for tenure, and my critics. The most obvious is that this work is risky. And, the other is that there really isn’t a problem to address. Academics ask, what injustice? What discrimination? What sexual harassment? What motherhood penalty? What exploitation of grad students and contingent faculty? The latter message has successfully led me to doubt myself. What’s that expression — that if you repeat something enough others will believe it’s true, especially if you talk loudly enough. (It worked for a certain elected official with no political experience and ample experience as a bigot and rapist…)
This work, however, is too important to second-guess myself. So, I’m planting my flag into the ground to declare that I am here to unapologetically fight for justice in the academy. Below, I offer a few reasons why this work is important.
Why Working For Academic Justice Is Important
Because Academic Injustice Exists
Perhaps the most important reason to fight for justice in academia is, well, because there is pervasive injustice in academia. Yes, to my surprise as a first-year graduate student, academia is not immune to systems of oppression. Classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism — systems of oppression that are embedded in every social institution — have been at home in every college and university from their creation. These manifest as everyday microaggressions, subtle and overt discrimination, disparities and leaky pipelines, rampant sexual violence, interpersonal and institutional barriers to accessibility for all people, prioritizing profit over justice, prioritizing academic freedom over academic justice, curricula that erase or tokenize or exotify oppressed communities, and so forth. That oppression exists in academia should suffice as enough reason to fight it.
Because Academia Reproduces Social Inequality
Unfortunately, the academy does not merely reflect the aforementioned systems of oppression; it also reproduces them in the larger society. There is ample evidence that education, the supposed “greater equalizer,” actually exacerbates inequality. Think about who goes to college: who performed well enough to get in, who attended a high enough quality school to get in, who can afford to go, who has the cultural capital to know how to apply. Among those who attend college, there are disparities between those who to go community colleges and four-year colleges, between those who go to state schools and those who go to private schools, between those who graduate and those who never do. Even with a degree in hand, there are disparities by academic major, quality in the training received, and additional opportunities like studying abroad and internships. There are some statistics that leave one to wonder what higher education is doing for oppressed groups, if anything positive.
And, it isn’t just at the undergraduate level. It is also in graduate education, and among staff and faculty. Let me highlight a few examples for faculty. Take the gender and race wage gaps. There are several manifestations of oppression in academia that contribute to these disparities: discrimination against people of color and women (especially those with kids) in hiring, tenure, promotion, and raises; harassment, which undermines a scholars’ productivity and well-being; disproportionate levels of undervalued (and usually unpaid) service, especially “diversity work“; the devaluing of gender studies, women’s studies, racial and ethnic studies, and cultural studies; racial and gender bias in publishing; racial and gender bias in course evaluations; the exclusion of women and people of color from high-status professional networks; the overrepresentation of women and people of color in poorly-paid, overburdened, temporary contingent faculty positions. You know, just to name a few things that exacerbate the broader patterns of wage disadvantages for oppressed folks.
Because Inequality In Academia Compounds Social Inequality
Since scholars from marginalized backgrounds were already oppressed before pursuing an academic career, injustice in academia further compounds the oppression we experience, thereby making the problem worse. Black academics, for example, cannot separate the racism they experience after they leave work from the racism they experienced at work. It doesn’t matter the source, shit is shit, and it stinks all the same.
I study discrimination and health, so the compounding affect on a scholar’s health comes to mind first. Discrimination is a stressful experience. Even just agonizing over whether the negative outcome one has just experienced was the product of discrimination is stressful. In giving privileged others the benefit of the doubt (because, counter to accusations of “crying wolf” or “playing the [fill in the blank marginalized identity] card”, no one wants to acknowledge that they were discriminated against), we only continue to stress over the event in question. This kind of stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate, it impedes your immune system, and it hinders your ability to make healthy choices regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity — basically, discrimination kills. The stress of “teaching while Black” compounds the stress of “driving while Black,” and the worry for the safety of one’s Black teen-aged children innocently hanging out with their friends, and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or booze one uses to forget the day’s troubles, and the racial bias in the health care one receives, and the worry about what is to come of this country now that a known racist is running it, and on and on.
Together, this means that our oppressed scholars cannot do their best work, and it hurts them in getting hired and tenured and promoted. It means we may be more likely to have to take medical leaves, or retire early, or find a new job, or leave academia all together, or even die earlier. Besides illness and death, the consequences of discrimination and inequality in academia compound other outcomes of social inequality (e.g., wage disparities, discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending, the burden of caregiving and financially supporting relatives also impacted by discrimination, etc.)
Because Academic Injustice Hurts Science And Higher Learning
Addressing injustice in academia is important because, on the whole, we are not doing our best work. Academic injustice is a threat to science and higher learning. Certain voices and perspectives are excluded from conference panels, works cited, journals, and course syllabi due to rampant bias. Entire fields like queer/LGBT/sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, fat studies, and disability studies are underresourced, underfunded, and understaffed on college campuses because they make central oppressed communities. As noted above, discrimination and harassment undermine oppressed scholars’ ability to do their best work, to put their work to use, to be taken seriously by their colleagues.
I imagine we routinely experience a brain drain in academia owing to the 50 percent drop-out rate among grad students, and perhaps many oppressed scholars with PhDs who eventually leave academia for the sake of their well-being or because of shitty wages as an adjunct. Diversity in academia is not merely some liberal political project; it is how science advances. Actively excluding oppressed scholars, or failing to prevent such exclusion, is a political project — it’s called white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, class oppression, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism.
Because Academic Injustice Undermines Our Ability To Fight For Broader Social Justice
A related reason is that leaving injustice in our ranks unaddressed undermines our ability to address injustice beyond the ivory tower. First of all, we’re hypocrites to pursue research that is critical of the rest of society, including other social institutions like law, the government, medicine, military, the labor market, religion, the and family, while oppression manifests in academic institutions. Yet, somehow, we have the rest of society convinced we’re all a bunch of liberals promoting various social justice agendas; we successfully convince prospective grad students who want to make a difference in the world that academia is the right profession for them.
We are not doing our best work as teachers, mentors, artists, scientists, advocates, and analysts. We uphold tenure-track jobs at Research I universities as the ideal path for every PhD despite the adjunctification of higher education, riding that sinking ship on its way to the bottom of the ocean. We could work in and with the community and partner with organizations outside of the ivory tower to reestablish our importance to society as a whole. Acknowledging my optimism here, I wonder whether that would help to reverse the pattern of drying up government funding for higher education and, in turn, the trend of replacing tenure-track positions with temporary adjunct positions.
Because — Oh, Fuck! — Trump Was Elected President (Fuck!)
Finally, now more than ever before, there is an urgent need for the academy to stand up to bigotry, violence, xenophobia, bullying, surveillance, and other social problems that threaten to get worse under the incoming presidential regime. Academic isolationism is a foolish strategy — just look where it has gotten us thus far (read: declining state and federal funding, adjunctification, exploding student debt, irrelevance to the rest of society). We are perhaps complicit in political rise of a racist rapist with no political experience.
But, it is not too late. We can stop clinging to the myths of meritocracy and objectivity that only serve to distract us to the rampant inequality within our ranks. We can stop prioritizing academic freedom, which merely tolerates academics’ controversial work while also enabling bigoted scholars oppressive antics; instead, we can bravely prioritize academic justice — an intentional effort to use academic work to promote justice.
I hope that I have convinced some readers why we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking inequality in academia isn’t that bad, or perhaps that addressing it is no better than “navel-gazing.” Even if not, I find myself more firm in my commitment to fight academic injustice and to promote academic justice. We’re wasting our time here if we continue to allow oppression to manifest in our profession.