Home » Authenticity and Voice (Page 2)

Category Archives: Authenticity and Voice

Activism As A Form Of Scholarly Expertise

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.

Why I Am Committed To Fighting Oppression In Academia

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

Image Source: Rigers Rukaj

“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.

Advice For Black Graduate Students On “Playing The Game”

The racism that ran rampant through my graduate program was like a swift, hard punch to the gut for me as a naïve, first-year graduate student. I had not even attended my first official graduate course before a cohortmate had marked by body as “ghetto,” despite growing up in the suburbs. I was devastated to find a self-proclaimed scholar of immigration saw no issue with her research assistant’s instruction to fellow students to avoid “talking Black” while conducting interviews. I was annoyed, but no longer surprised, that the faculty failed to see the problems with the ethnic theme of the annual department party.

My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism, and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma matter, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom. Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe; in fact, they kind of alluded that I was naive to expect otherwise.

Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism that I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.

For Black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.

As you select a graduate department, I’m afraid it is simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it. Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at an HBCU may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness. Don’t assume the presence of a few token Black faculty members or race scholars will be enough to overcome an otherwise racist department. And, given the devaluing of interdisciplinarity in the academy, don’t assume the presence of other, critical programs (e.g., African American Studies) will compensate for lack of diversity or race consciousness in your own (more traditional) PhD program (e.g., sociology).

Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences — with coursework, support from and availability of faculty, with the university, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the surrounding city, etc. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity, or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work, and funded. You might do well with a few concrete questions that you email, and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available. Contact faculty to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of Black faculty, but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors; if you actually visit the department, use your budding ethnographer skills to observe how central Black faculty and students are in the department’s functions.

As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time. Your grad program is not in the business of looking after your personal well-being, so do not rely on it to feel your personal, social, spiritual, and sexual/romantic needs. I highly, highly recommend that you have a community outside of your program; I’d even recommend avoiding dating a fellow student (and professors are off limits). Get involved with a graduate student group, set up a Meetup account and your choice of dating app (if you’re looking), find a church, and look for an off-campus gym, doctor, and therapist if your finances allow them. My point is, do not center your entire life around your graduate program. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have other places to go to unwind without fear of your actions or words getting back to your colleagues.

I wish I could say this concretely — but navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. Find a balance between “playing the game” to succeed in graduate school (by mainstream standards) and authenticity. I made the mistake of “souling out” to such a high level that my mental health suffered. But, I saw others in my program who embraced authenticity so strongly that some faculty did not want to work with them or did not take them seriously, who struggled to advance through departmental milestones, and/or struggled to do the things that made them a strong candidate for the academic job market.

It is an awful catch-22 that Black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. It’s never too early to read The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul.

The faculty advisors whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being. Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will likely have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job. But, I strongly encourage a second mentor who perhaps isn’t as accessible, but whose insight is just as important as your main mentor. You can have mentors who are more of a sounding board for professional and/or personal matters, but may have little say over your progress in the department.

Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether these mentors are Black or some other race. A Black professor may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But, there is evidence that white men professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher status professional networks, cultural capital, and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy. Keep in mind that being Black doesn’t necessarily make one a good, reliable, or trustworthy professor; unfortunately, you cannot assume a shared Black identity is an automatic sign of solidarity. And, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the white faculty as potential resources; maybe they won’t be sounding boards for the racist crap you’ve dealt with (and might even contribute to it), but they may have other means to help you excel in your career.

Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end. This is not the rest of your life. There will be times you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy, or feels irrelevant to your goals to survive and thrive as a Black intellectual. But, you’ve just got to do it to get that PhD and then do whatever you want. These professors are mere gatekeepers. They can grant you a PhD, but they can never validate your worth or value.

“Objectivity” And Oppression In Academia

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

Objectivity — a scholar’s supposed ability to remain impartial about the subjects she studies — is a myth. Like the myths of meritocracy and color-blindness, objectivity sounds good in theory, but it is impossible to use it in practice. Simply put, researchers are not immune to bias. While in many instances such bias can be dangerous, bias is not bad, per se.

Objectivity Precludes Certain Areas Of Inquiry

I am a sociologist in training, perspective, and practice. (Un)fortunately, in the process of recovering from the trauma of my graduate training, my consciousness about my discipline has grown, as well. It recently hit me that it would be more accurate to say that my degree is in “white sociology” or “Eurocentric sociology,” not sociology. The training I received pushed objective research as the only true form of research. But, being detached was not enough; it was not enough to naively attempt to leave my anti-racist politics and Black racial identity at home when I left for school.

Rather, objectivity also implied that research on race — more specifically, research that made central the lives of Black people — was inferior to more mainstream areas. I was told that a true sociologist takes on a subfield — typically a social institution like education or medicine — and, in the process, she might just happen to focus on a particular (marginalized) population. But, no one should be a sociologist of race, and certainly not an anti-racist sociologist. Sadly, for me, “just happens to study [X population]” did not extend to LGBTQ people. In my case, to be objective meant to move away from studying the very community I went to grad school to study. It has taken a couple of years post-grad school to finally return to topics I wanted to pursue back in 2007.

As a powerful and seductive ideology, objectivity serves as a tool for (privileged) gatekeepers of the discipline to devalue research on oppression and oppressed communities. To be objective, one cannot be too eager to study trans people, or Latino fathers, or women with disabilities. To study these populations whom the academy finds suspect or, at worse, unimportant, is to compromise one’s credibility as a true researcher.

Objectivity Is A Privilege

Early in grad school, a fellow student criticized my interest in the intersections among racism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism as “narrow.” In the years since, others have implied or explicitly said that my research constitutes “me-search.” That is, my scholarship is suspect because I am a fat Black queer non-binary sociologist who does research on multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g., queer people of color), trans people, queer people, people of color, and fat people. In my case, this suspicion is heightened because my anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cissexist, and anti-heterosexist activism is visible and publicly accessible. Mind you, my research is quantitative, rarely includes “I” or other first person references, speaks to mainstream sociology audiences, is published in mainstream sociology journals, and probably appeases the demand of objective research. My sins, however, are being fat Black queer and non-binary, and caring about the communities that I study.

My white cisgender heterosexual “normal weight” men colleagues are not suspected of bias. They are seen as the gold standard of objectivity. Their interest in topics that seem most interesting to other white dudes is somehow devoid of the influence of their social location. Their uncritical or, on rare occasion, critical perspective on a topic is seen as expertise, not bias. Even when these privileged scholars study marginal topics and/or marginalized communities, their work is taken seriously and remains unquestioned. I have yet to see a privileged scholar accused of having “narrow” interests or doing “me-search.” That is because objectivity serves as a device to police, devalue, and exclude the research of marginalized scholars.

I believe that the privilege of objectivity also includes the freedom from any sense of obligation to do work that matters, to do work that will liberate one’s people. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved,” DuBois remarked in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Like DuBois, I wrestle so frequently with feeling that my publications that lie behind paywalls, only to be read by a handful of people in my subfield, are a complete waste of time while Black trans and cis people are being murdered by the dozens. Our privileged colleagues are not faced with the urgency of death, oppression, violence, invisibility, illness, and poverty of their people, so I can only imagine how much easier it is for them to (pretend to?) be objective, detached, and removed – experts on problems of the world, not of or in them.

Objectivity Perpetuates The Erasure Of Marginalized Scholars

Though my grad school coursework included 3 semesters of professional seminars, I have subsequently found it is neither enough professional development nor relevant to the primary concerns of many marginalized scholars. Instead of talking about how to select a qualifying exam area, I would have benefited from a reflexive discussion about the myth of objectivity in our discipline. Perhaps a less critical, and thus more palpable, topic would be “debates in the profession.” Indeed, whether objectivity exists and — to the extent that it exists — whether it is a good thing has been debated from the very start of the discipline of sociology. So, too, is whether sociologists should concern themselves exclusively with empiricism or also with making a difference in the world, or at least one’s communities.

To further raise my consciousness about my profession, I have started reading pieces by respected sociologists that have long been raising the concerns I have been struggling with privately. For example, Dr. Joe Feagin devoted his American Sociological Association presidential address (2001) to “Social Justice and Sociology.” Feagin raised a point that floored me. The rise of objective research by white men sociologists coincided with the erasure of the work and contributions of sociologists like Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Jane Addams — women and people of color in the discipline. Due to racist and sexist discrimination, these scholars’ work was already devalued; but, the shift toward “value-free” sociology further undermined their contributions in the discipline. Recovering their work, which in objective terms is simply a matter of good science, is an inherently anti-racist and feminist act.

Each instance of embracing objectivity, then, reinforces the erasure of women scholars and scholars of color. Each time I have taught the obligatory theory section in my introductory sociology courses, focusing on “the big three” — Weber, Marx, and Durkheim — I have been complicit in the erasure of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Martineau, and Patricia Hill Collins, and others who are not dead white men. The professor of my grad school theory course is complicit, too, by excluding any discussion of critical race theory, Black feminist theory, or queer theory; we focused, instead, on “classical” sociological theory. Each time I unquestioningly cited the (W. I.) Thomas theorem — what people perceive to be real is real in its consequences — I was complicit in the erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was a co-author on the text from which this theorem comes.

To question whose perspective and scholarship is respected as central to the discipline would be suspected as activism; and, it requires additional work to learn and advance the perspectives and scholarship of marginalized scholars that one was denied in one’s own training. But, to consume and teach classical and mainstream sociological material without question is to reinforce the racist and sexist status quo.

I conclude by asking that scholars be brave enough to reject the myth of objectivity, and be willing to own subjective and scholar-activist work. But, a revolution of sorts in academe is necessary for this to happen. We must stop celebrating and so fiercely defending “objectivity” in graduate training, in publications, in grants, and in tenure and promotion. We do society and ourselves a disservice by standing on the political sidelines, complicit in our own irrelevance.

Co-Authorships: Lessons Learned From The Dark Side of Publishing

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Last week, I went on a bit of a Twitter rant in revealing the backstory of my forthcoming article, “Sexual Orientation Differences in Attitudes about Sexuality, Race, and Gender” (Social Science Research). I am taking Dr. Jessie Daniel’s advice to turn those tweets into this blog post, though I doubt this would make for a peer-reviewed article.  (But, never say never.)

From Master’s Thesis to Journal Article (2007-2017)

Let me begin by retelling the ten-year saga that led to the publication of the aforementioned article. I entered graduate school intending to study the lives of LGBTQ people. I made this research interest, and the broader interest in challenging anti-LGBTQ oppression, quite clear to the graduate schools to which I applied.  However, I wasn’t aware that graduate schools might not be as transparent as me.  I chose to study sociology at Indiana University, which boasted strength in sexualities, including two professors who specialize in the area.  I wasn’t aware that one of those professor would leave almost as soon as I got there, and that the other remained on the periphery of the department (partly because of a reputation for sexual harassment, and partly because sexualities was a marginalized subfield).  I wasn’t aware that my admission into the program came with the intention to mold my marginal, radical interests into something acceptable to mainstream sociology.  I realize, now basically in 2017, that Indiana sociology was a poor fit for me, perhaps explaining the ongoing anxiety and complex trauma from which I suffer.

When it came time to propose a topic for my master’s thesis early in my first-year of grad school, I let my passion do the talking.  I proposed an ethnographic study of racism in the local community — Bloomington, Indiana. (That warrants its own blog post: hearing, “I’m not usually into Black guys”; being asked, “why would you tell anyone you’re Black since no one can tell?”; repeatedly being asked, “what are you?” at the lone gay club; assumed to be a “top” with a huge penis and a tendency for sexual aggression simply because I’m Black; a Black friend being called a nigger when he turned down an ugly white guy’s advances in the gay club’s bathroom; etc.)  I was gently steered away from the subject because of concerns about the amount of time it would take to conduct a qualitative project.  Instead, I was guided to do something that could be quickly and easily done with existing survey data.  So, I settled on comparing heterosexuals’ and sexual minorities’ race and gender attitudes using data from the General Social Survey.

I made acceptable progress on my new thesis topic. But, at one point, I proposed doing an alternative thesis wherein I would compare white heterosexuals’ and white sexual minorities’ race attitudes; my passion and curiosity remained fixated on the problem of racism in queer communities.  Without even reading a draft of that paper into which I had put so much time and energy, my main advisor dismissed it, again citing concerns about data (in this case, sample size).  So, I carried on with the topic that was somewhat related to my passion.  I finished the thesis on time, successfully earning my master’s degree at the close of my second year.

My main advisor offered to collaborate on an expanded version of the thesis project, implicitly using the offer as an incentive to finish the thesis on time.  I recognized his respected status in the field and his commendable research record, so I jumped at the chance.  I had already begun to worry about publishing, so the thought of publishing a piece on sexualities, perhaps in the top journal in sociology, excited me beyond words.

Oh, the paper certainly expanded.  Investigating a few racial attitudes and a few gender attitudes expanded to every item in the General Social Survey — a behemoth of a survey that covers every social and political domain imaginable.  I had 280 outcomes to analyze, yet he instructed me to add a second dataset — the American National Election Survey — which added an additional 60 items.  As typical of our field, I had to predict multiple models: sexual orientation on every sociopolitical outcome, then its effects net of the effects of other identities like race and gender on those attitudes, and then its effect net of possible mechanisms linking sexual orientation to attitudes.  Though these findings seemed interesting and solid on their own, he instructed me to also pay attention to how race, gender, and education affected sociopolitical attitudes.  That means I had to collect coefficients for four variables across three models for 340 outcomes; that is 4,080 coefficients for which to account.  To keep track of it all, I had to record these coefficients in Excel and devise formulas (through a lot of trial and error — with more errors than I care to recall) to identify patterns.  It’s no wonder this paper became the most reliable trigger of my newly developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  Messing up one code or formula forced me to do everything over again, and usually left me feeling I would vomit right on the computer keyboard.

I once complained about the amount of work involved to my advisor-turned-coauthor.  Regarding analyses, it seemed his role was simply to give orders.  If he didn’t like the results I produced, he’d send me back to redo them.  Oh, did I mention that we had several supplemental analyses of all of the above?  So, 4,080 coefficients was probably closer to 25,000.  His solution, besides doing more analyses, was to bring on another co-author to help me.  Without any passive aggression in that suggestion, it seems like a well-intentioned suggestion.  But, with it, it sounded as though he was implying I couldn’t handle it.  I predictably responded to his implication, replying “of course, not!”  So, I continued on, only to myself and friends complaining about the amount of work I was doing while he had never even seen the raw data.

I wrote a full draft of the expanded paper at the end of my third year. And, several more revised drafts in my fourth year, updating the paper each time the analyses were changed. And, there were multiple revisions of the seventh iteration of this paper in my last two years of grad school. As the years went on with an evolving but unpublished paper, eventually the only thing that was changing was redoing the analyses over from scratch as new waves of the data were released.  I first had to start over by adding 2010 data, and then again with 2012 data.  It was a pain, made more painful by the fact that the results were not changing.  We almost got scooped a couple of times as scholars in other fields began to take seriously sexual orientation’s effect on individuals’ attitudes and political behaviors.  But, my co-author never wrote a single word on the paper.  Ever.  Some of my emails to pester him about it went ignored; to others, he apologized for being busy and promised to get to the paper next month (which never happened).  I fumed as projects he started well after ours began were published within a year or two.  It was clear I was not a priority for him.

Once I graduated and began my current tenure-track position, my impatience with my co-author (and the anxiety I experienced about this paper) grew to an unforgivable level.  The decision, for me, became letting the paper go for the sake of a continued connection to my former advisor or letting the relationship go and publishing the paper on my own. Which was more important: finally publishing this fucking paper, or having him as a potential letter writer and continued mentor?  In my mind, this was an either/or situation because surely he’d retaliate if I published the paper without him.  I had witnessed other students’ careers impacted by his efforts to blackball them behind the scenes.  I was aware of his power in the department and discipline, and his reputation for using it without consequence.

He and other advisors never supported my decision to take my current position (at a liberal arts college), and, when I saw them at conferences, would find a way to stir up my doubts about taking it.  As the 2014 wave of the General Social Survey became available, I had to make the hard decision.  I refused to redo the analyses from scratch.  So, I emailed him to kick him off of the paper.  I was shocked when he responded that I couldn’t do so; he had contributed too much to the paper (I suppose not in words or analyses, but in ideas [read: instructions to me]) to be denied authorship credit.  But, he promised to work on it.  Another promise broken.  Later, I sent him an eight-page handwritten letter expressing how frustrating and triggering this project had been, and how hurt I was that I felt our relationship was undermined by this ordeal.  Another promise to work on it, another promise broken.

I eventually decided to squash the project, also killing every possible follow-up project.  It felt like the only possible way to free myself from it and his control over it.  He could have it if he dared to touch the data that plagued me for years.  I emailed him on March 2015 notifying him of my decision, thanking him for his work over the years.  He never responded, though I later saw he removed it from his CV, so I knew he got the message.  The unspoken message was that I was effectively cutting ties with him, as well.  I’m now a few years out from grad school, so I’d need letters that are more current than what he could offer.  And, I finally accepted that he never had my best interest at heart, and he never supported the career I defined for myself.  So, what good was his letter anyhow?

After a few months, I felt very dispassionate about what was left of my research.  Cutting off the line of research on sexualities — the very topic that drew me to the academy — felt like cutting off a limb.  I felt I was hurting myself more than anyone else by killing that project.  So, I revived it, starting by returning to my master’s thesis.  Starting over felt hard, but it also felt right.  I am pleased to say that the new paper was accepted at the first journal to which I submitted it.  On my own, of course.  I didn’t have to include comparisons to race, gender, and education, which always felt like throwing women and Black people under the bus in order to elevate sexual minorities.  I begrudgingly acknowledged him and other advisors for their support on the paper.  But, from here on out, this line of research is all me, all my passion, all my ideas.  I’ve already submitted the first follow up paper to a journal, and will be submitting the second one in a few weeks.  And, these papers are very me (i.e., with a heavy emphasis on intersectionality).  I’m back!

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

It’s only in this essay that I have ever articulated a sense that attending my graduate program was perhaps a mistake.  I assured myself that transferring to another program wouldn’t solve my problems, as the shaming, marginalization, and the disregard for my goals would be found in almost every sociology program.  And, dropping out, even with the MA, didn’t hold other viable options.  So, I haven’t dwelled on the decision to go to Indiana, or even stay there for that matter.

But, I have spent some time beating myself up for naively (and perhaps greedily) agreeing to co-author with my former advisor.  I had already given up an ethnographic project on racism in queer communities to, instead, use a quantitative approach to compare heterosexuals and sexual minorities’ attitudes.  I conceded again and again when he became a co-author, adding comparisons to other identities that I felt were problematic.  By the end, I had to kill the entire project to remove myself from his control.

What would I say — now at 31 with just a short time left before filing for tenure — to my 24-year-old self at the cusp of earning my MA degree?

IT’S A TRAP!  And, other lessons I have learned the hard way…

First, don’t publish with anyone who has control over your professional (or personal) fate.  (See my Vitae essay on this.)  In a power-imbalanced relationship, navigating the potential minefields of co-authorships and the publication process can prove disastrous.  I was lead author on the paper, but he called the shots.  I didn’t even have the power to kick him off of the paper despite years of neglecting it; yet, ironically, he was quick to kick off a former student coauthor of one of his major projects when she wasn’t pulling her weight.  I know some believe in this model, especially the “apprentice” model wherein the senior scholar/professor is the lead author.  But, I think it is most beneficial for grad students and junior scholars to publish on their own.  That way, there is no question about what the contributed to a project.  If co-authorships are desired, I recommend limiting them to peers.

A related concern about collaborations is to avoid letting existing relationships tempt you to co-author.  Co-authorships can get messy.  The aforementioned one threatened to cost me a relationship with my advisor, and eventually did when I no longer felt I needed him.  I lost two friends over another paper; sadly, my name is nowhere on it, so, in the end, I had neither a paper nor their friendship.  I’ve gotten into a fight with another co-author and friend over the authorship order once I felt I had done much more for the paper.  I’m currently in a collaboration that proves to be successful for many years; we started out as co-authors and a friendship has developed in the process.  I’m not saying don’t publish with friends, lovers, relatives, professors, senior colleagues, etc.  (Well, yes I am.)  But, if you must, don’t let your existing relationship be the reason you decide to work together.  How we are as co-authors maybe quite different from how we are as friends.

Third, treat potential collaborations like you would a relationship.  If you’re open to a quick, one-time “hook-up,” go for it.  (Though someone often gets less out of it.)  But, if you plan to be deeply involved in a project, and perhaps pursue a long-term collaboration, open communication is crucial to decide upon division of labor, authorship credit, goals for the project(s), working styles, availability, and your politics about publishing.  No matter the level of involvement and potential longevity of the collaboration, I believe it is crucial to be upfront with one another about your expectations for the project(s).  I was burned by being opportunistic about the publication with my former advisor, and I paid the price for being greedy.  I feel strongly that the open communication necessary for a healthy collaboration is nearly impossible when one co-author holds power over the other; but, if the more senior person isn’t inclined to abuse their power (though you sometimes don’t know whether they would until they do for the first time), and is able to separate problems with a co-authorship from evaluating you in other domains, maybe it’s OK to pursue such a partnership.

A related piece of advice is to do your homework before you jump into a collaboration.  If you have ready access to their past or current co-authors, ask how they are as a partner in research.  Maybe even ask your potential co-author how past collaborations have gone; if you see a pattern of conflict, they may be the common denominator.  Look at their CV to see if anything stands out.  For example, are they consistently the lead author?  That could be because it was all from their own data, or maybe they are unwilling to play a secondary role.  Do they ever publish on their own (if that is common in your field)?  Maybe they are coasting on co-authorships to get published.  Of course, you should inquire about any patterns that seem off to you.  If I had done my homework, I might have been suspicious that my advisor almost exclusively collaborates, and with people who are former students and mentees.  (Is this about a commitment to mentorship?  Or, is this because these subordinates are easier to control?)  My critical eye might have noticed that few people of color have worked with him as a co-author, and sexualities was never a topic he studied until after we started working together.  Red flags are red for a reason.

Fifth, consider having a line of work or series of papers that are safe for collaboration, while maintaining some that are just for you.  I made the mistake of putting all of my eggs in one basket, so when the co-authored project was stalled, I had to rush to find another project to pursue.  As that sexualities paper was held up for nearly six years, I became frustrated that my primary interest was not reflected in my publications.  Now, it is, while my work on discrimination has become collaborative; the latter benefits me by reigniting an interest that was starting to wane after years of studying it.  Since co-authorships can get held up in ways that solo-authored work doesn’t, it seems worth considering having both to ensure something is moving to print.

Sixth, consider finding other pathways toward advancement that you may feel is exclusive to collaborations.  Being more specific, if it seems a co-author has something you lack — status, expertise, funding or other resources, networks — you could give yourself the time to gain access to it eventually, thus ensuring that the project is independent.  I readily agreed to collaborate with my former advisor because I felt he could easily get us into one of the top journals in our discipline.  But, I could have done that on my own.  Maybe it would not have happened with the first paper; but, I am confident that I could have eventually built up to a big project worthy of a top-tier journal, first publishing a series of smaller papers.  Of course, I do believe science advances by collaborating with those who have something we lack; I see such complementary relationships as beneficial to research.  I just want to be cautious about the opportunism that leads us to get something out quickly that may not be worth the risk of conflict with co-authors.  If something gets held up because of such conflict, that scientific advancement might have been better off being pushed in a solo-authored project.

Seventh, avoid collaborating with anyone who undermines, rather than advances, your passion and ideas.  Compromise and communication are central to a successful collaboration.  But, you should feel as though your voice and interests are reflected in your work.  With your name listed as an author, you are responsible for an article’s contents, conclusions, and implications.  You had better believe in every word that is written!  And, you should feel good about it.  Publishing for publication sake may not prove useful if some opportunistic lines on your CV do not clearly advance your independent research program.

Eighth, take the long-view with publishing.  Beware of quickly agreeing to collaborate on something because you had a great conversation over drinks with a stranger at a conference, or because a friend got you excited about their paper they can’t seem to get published after four tries, or because someone has data they’re just sitting on (but want to get published).  The peer-review process is long, so you should take some time to think on an invitation to collaborate before jumping to say yes.  How does this paper fit into your research agenda?  Will it take time, energy, and funding away from your other work?  If it gets held up, will you have other papers moving through the pipeline to ensure success toward graduation/hiring/tenure/promotion?  You might even want to make a list of all of your ongoing projects, with some sense of a timeline, to see whether (or not) this new project fits, keeping in mind that it may require more work and take longer than publish than you anticipate (as is the case for any publication).

Ninth, be self-reflective.  Take the time to clearly identify a research program, your short-term and long-term research goals, your working style, your schedule and availability, and your strengths and weaknesses.  No one is perfect, so it’s worth assessing whether you might be a potentially bad co-author.  I know I tend to be impulsive, so a similarly impulsive co-author and I may bite off more than we can chew, while a more cautious co-author can reign me in but will make me feel constrained. Generally, it feels much easier to work alone with this in mind; but, this awareness has made my most recent collaborations all the more smooth, peaceful, and efficient.

Finally, forgive yourself for bad decisions you made in the past.  You can recover from them.  And, it may not be fair to you to blame yourself for making decisions out of naivete or ignorance, or that at least seemed beneficial for you at the time.  Learn from the mistake, impart the wisdom you gain to others, and move forward.  If you have had a bad experience with research, consider sharing it publicly so others can learn to avoid your mistakes, or maybe even feel validated that they are not alone in making that mistake.

Thanks for reading.