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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.
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.
For over a year now, I have been seeing a therapist to work through the trauma that was my graduate training. I have a knack for discussing personal troubles publicly, so I have been writing about the recovery process over the past year, as well. I figure, since the structure and culture of the academy is complicit in the trauma, why should I continue to suffer silently? Others like me (Black, queer, non-binary, fat, activist) and not like me have probably been traumatized, too.
Since going public about my story – grad school as “little T” trauma (not as bad as “big T” traumas like rape, child abuse, or war) – I have been privy to other marginalized academics’ trauma narratives. Most of these folks have not said a word, but their reactions to my story say a great deal. I have become more adept at recognizing trauma in other academics: retelling the same painful stories of oppression and injustice over and over; consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from others – “please believe how awful this was”; continuing to give power to those who traumatized them, at least as “air time” in their thoughts, nightmares, and stories. I recognize it because I was doing it and still do at times, albeit to a lesser extent with the help of therapy.
As others have actually named their own trauma and shared those stories with me, I have not only found confirmation that 1) I am not alone in being traumatized by my graduate school experiences and 2) the forces that lead to trauma for marginalized students and scholars is likely far worse than I imagined. Academe and its graduate education is not merely out of touch with the needs of the world beyond the ivory tower. It is not simply a matter of academics having their heads up their butts while job security remains a luxury for the few and exploitative labor conditions in academe have become the new normal for PhDs.
There is a longstanding, widespread phenomenon that I fear too few of us recognize, and even fewer of us are willing to name: intellectual violence. In the name of job prospects, tenurability, professional status, grant funding options, journal homes, citation rates, impact factors, and so forth, many (privileged) academics promote the erasure, stereotyping, disempowerment, objectification, exotification, and silencing of oppressed communities. The status quo of the larger racist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and fatphobic society is upheld by the academy; worse, academe maintains a reputation for social justice, diversity and inclusion, and critical investigation of the status quo.
I suspect many academics are aware of the ways in which science has been used to advance oppressive causes. We must credit early white men scientists, many of whom were obsessed with creating a taxonomy of humans especially on the basis of race and sexuality, for their influence in oppressive ideologies and policies. (But, let’s not be too optimistic in thinking scientific racism or scientific homophobia are historical artifacts. Think Jason Richwine and Mark Regnerus, among others.)
But, far fewer academics seem to be openly acknowledging the ways in which academic research and teaching (unintentionally) enact violence against oppressed communities through academic norms and values. Where money and resources go says a great deal about an institution’s priorities. So, we can infer from the relatively small number of gender and/or women’s studies, racial and/or ethnic studies, Black and African American studies, Latinx studies, LGBT and queer studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous studies, and disability studies programs that these areas of academic study, curricula, and, arguably, communities of study, are unimportant in the academy. Where these programs exist, they are underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed.
Most insulting is making marginalized scholars complicit in this violence by making their own job security and professional success dependent upon it. Though naïve about the academy as I graduated college and headed to grad school, I was at least aware that a PhD in sociology would open far greater doors than one in gender or sexuality studies. But, I had no idea that trading off the joy I felt in my gender and sexuality studies courses in college for job prospects in academe was the first of a series of compromises and concessions. I regularly conformed, repeatedly passing up opportunities to pursue gender and sexuality studies for a more mainstream path. This explains why my most recent work falls in the realm of medical sociology, despite being recognized as a sexuality researcher on all counts but my actual training.
On some level, perhaps mostly unconscious, six years of training that implied to me that queer and trans people, women, people of color – and especially people at the intersections of these identities – are unimportant led me to agree with the devaluing of research and teaching on and advocacy with oppressed communities. It led me to agree that these communities themselves hold little value relative to cis hetero middle-class white America. No one held a gun to my head to force me to make the decisions that I made. However, I actually think the intellectual nature of this kind of violence was actually far more damaging than physical violence would ever be. The intentional resocialization of grad school changed how I view the world, how I think of myself as a scholar and an activist, and altered how I relate to my own communities.
Like many victims of oppression, I have also internalized the voice that leads me to doubt the severity of my own marginalization. As I write this, I want to concede that I am being a bit dramatic by using the word violence to describe my training, that I am insulting real victims of trauma (“big T” trauma). But, I keep coming back to the word violence when I think about what I have had to do to recover. On the health front, I have been spending a great deal of time and money on acupuncture, massages, fitness training, and therapy, plus taking a yoga class and Lexapro for the anxiety, to deal with the psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms of the trauma. I have given up a decent chuck of my research leave trying to get healthy – all the while feeling guilty for prioritizing self-care and resentful that privileged colleagues on leave can churn out books because there is little to no trauma from which to recover.
Professionally, I have had to unlearn much of my graduate training in order to heal, to move forward with my research trajectory, to sustain myself, and to feel that my work is aligned with my values as an activist. I have to relearn how to love my communities and myself, and to trust that my gut and spirit are leading me in the right direction, even if that means straying from mainstream academic norms. I will never be free if I let institutional and professional norms define me as a person, if I take my value and worth as a person and scholar from any institution.
Defining what it means to be a scholar on my own terms is scary because I lack role models, and I lack a path-well-taken that assures me that I am headed in the right direction. And, such self-definition is not without its risks. But, for the sake of my health, longevity, and well-being, I can no longer be complicit in the intellectual violence against my communities and me. I will never be free by appeasing institutions that are set on maintaining the status quo.
The best piece of advice I received as a grad student was to think of my graduate school professors and advisors as nothing more than gatekeepers. These were people who had been given power by my department, university, and the profession to train me and award me with a PhD. On the surface, it is well known that I, as the student, had to demonstrate sufficient competency in order to advance: master’s thesis, graduate minor, qualifying exam, proposal defense, and then dissertation defense. And, I did so, hence the three letters behind my name since July 2013. They made the boxes that I successfully checked in a six-year period.
Such a utilitarian approach doesn’t sound so bad. Graduate school was simply a means to an end. All I needed to do was appease my grad school advisors’ conditions for advancing toward the PhD — nothing more, nothing less.
But, graduate training tends to be much more complex than that. The dropout rate would not be 50 percent, mental illness would not run so rampant, and there would probably be a lot fewer folks stuck in lifelong ABD purgatory. But, the utilitarian model, while helpful, has the unintended consequence of serving to blame those very students who do not advance in their training.
Admittedly, I can only speak from my own perspective as a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist. So, I need to narrow my concerns to the experiences of marginalized graduate students, perhaps especially my fellow unicorns at the lovely, yet sometimes dreadful, intersections of more than one oppressed status. The utilitarian model — “just play the game” — is naively simplistic when one’s training exists in the context of cissexist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, and xenophobic oppression. We do not start at the same (privileged) starting point, we are not given the same quality training and resources to excel, our take on the game is seen as inferior, and we are less likely to enjoy the spoils of successfully winning the game.
Ironically, I actually intended to write this essay to promote the aforementioned utilitarian approach. But, as I reflect on how I played the game — but still feel as though I did not win in some important ways — I have grown wary of that advice.
First, I should highlight that the actual game of succeeding in graduate school demanded so much more than checking the boxes that my grad school advisors demanded. There seemed to be an infinite number of implied and sometimes explicitly stated expectations that were either 1) required to actually earn the PhD, 2) highly recommended in order to get a (tenure-track) job (at a Research I university), or 3) deemed central to what it means to be a (mainstream) sociologist. I cannot say that it was ever entirely clear which end a particular means achieved. Was the explicit effort to steer me away from gender and sexuality studies — the areas I expressed interest in in my grad school application — actually a matter of getting the PhD? Probably not. Was the explicit effort to “beat the activist” out of me a formal part of PhD training? Doubtful.
This lack of clarity about the motivations behind particular aspects of my graduate training proved to be more troublesome than a problem of uncertainty. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it allowed for my graduate advisors to use their superordinate status to push me into a certain direction professionally. I hope most professors could not be described as manipulative, but I have heard stories that echo my own experiences. I had to concern myself with my status in the department, as greater visibility and status as a student meant more opportunities to advance my training. The students on the periphery of the program were tale-tell signs of what could happen if I ignored too many of the informal and implied expectations.
A second, related concern is the strong seductive power of being in the “in” crowd. I was drawn to the game-playing approach, especially as it became a matter of survival. I did what I had to do to get the degree, but also pursued other things (usually secretly) that fed my spirit. But, I saw that others, usually privileged students, were invited into relationships with professors in ways that were not impersonal exchanges. Some were invited to babysit, catsit, and housesit for professors — I never was. Some remain lifelong friends and/or collaborators with their former advisors; some honor their former advisors by making them their children’s godparents. Across the board, many at least stay in touch with their advisors, occasionally leaning on them for professional advice (and sometimes personal support), drawing on their networks, and writing recommendation letters.
I (mostly) played the game, and what did I get? Strained professional and personal ties with my grad school advisors, generalized anxiety disorder, and an unhealthy dose of complex trauma to work through still years later from the awful experience of grad school. No, I do not actually want those kinds of relationships with my advisors; it seems unethical to ask students (who would fear saying no) to watch your children, pets, or house. But, that kind of intimacy was partially denied to me and resisted as a matter of my own survival.
I would be lying if I said I did not want some kind of personal relationship with my grad school advisors. These were people I saw on a weekly, if not daily basis, who were invested in my training and success, who observed the highs and lows of the roller coaster known as grad school. I never wanted to treat grad school as a game, for I never knew education to be a cold business transaction.
Perhaps that is where my naiveté shows. My professors — trained sociologists — were not my friends, or therapists, or confidants, and — as I learned the hard way — they were not to be collaborators or colleagues of equal status. A power-imbalanced relationship, in which my advancement and career depended upon them, is inherently fraught. My vulnerable position in these student-professor relationships was heightened by the inequality in our social locations — them white, cisgender, middle-class, (mostly) heterosexual, and me Black, genderqueer, a broke grad student, and queer. I was perhaps too open about suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and about being an activist (which they saw as a professional liability).
The funny thing is, as I became more jaded, distant, guarded, and utilitarian as a means of survival, one advisor criticized me for holding back and for not seeming to trust them. Despite having my anxiety dismissed and their efforts to beat the activist out of me, I was expected to still bare my soul to them — the very soul they intended to crush, or at least co-opt.
I suspect that the privileged way of relating to others in the academy is to be unquestioningly open and trusting of one’s peers and superordinates; indeed, grad school was not the last time I was accused of not trusting a (white) colleague. But, for marginalized folks, that kind of openness and trust can open us up for others’ critique, judgment, dismissal, or other violence. Yet, you get dismissed as uppity, guarded, mean, cold, or standoffish if you don’t open up for privileged colleagues’ entertainment/inspection/surveillance. A double-standard for marginalized scholars and students about ways of interacting with (privileged) others in the academy, which, in the end, actually has nothing to do with the quality of our research or teaching.
Frankly, I never found one good strategy to excel in grad school. Just being good at what I do wasn’t enough because what I really wanted to do — study the intersection of race and sexuality — was dismissed. And, being “likeable” wasn’t enough or, to be really real, even possible for the long-term. I fumbled my way through grad school, achieving what I now see as inevitable: I would earn that damn PhD and never look back. I just wish I was in a position to advise future PhDs how to do so without the scars I endured in the process.