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“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me“
Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.
That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.
In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.
I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”
First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.
On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.
Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?
A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.
The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.
The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.
Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students. The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.
Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)
I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.
Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.
Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.
I have been quite open about the traumatizing impact of my graduate training. Here I am, on research leave during my fourth year on the tenure-track, still griping about this soul-crushing chapter in my life. In working through the trauma, and attempting to answer questions that haunt me — Why me? Why is this still affecting me years later? — I have uncovered many layers to the trauma that was grad school. Most recently, I have identified one of the most impactful factors of graduate school that explains its lasting impact: the use of shame to train me.
From my own experience, I would define shame as an intense, prolonged feeling of anguish or angsts over who I am (or who I was or who I fear I may become). I will quote Brené Brown here to state more articulately, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love belonging” (p. 69 of Daring Greatly). It is crucial to distinguish the shame that we feel over who we are from the guilt we feel because of what we have done. You can apologize and, hopefully, be forgiven for doing something wrong, but it feels as though you can never apologize enough or be forgiven for being something wrong.
Graduate training is just as much about teaching graduate students what to do (research and, if you’re lucky, teaching) and even how to think as it is about who to be. My graduate program required a three-semester sequence of “pro sem” (professional seminars) in which we learned about navigating graduate school and academe more generally. Though this is the only explicit training centered heavily or exclusively around professional (rather than intellectual, scholarly, or pedagogical) training, so much of graduate school is professional socialization. Professors are in the business of resocializing their students to become scholars, not simply to do scholarship. Unlike undergraduate education, grad students aren’t simply learning from their professors; they are learning to become (like) their professors.
The attempt to actually socialize grad students is where the problems begin, particularly for students who are radical and/or marginalized. With little training for advising graduate students, many graduate professors default to what their professors taught them; thus, they continue the legacy of creating clones of themselves rather than independent and autonomous scholars. For some, this is intentional, owing to their intellectual arrogance; for others, they don’t know of any other models and do not have the time or interest in finding or devising them. Interestingly, this sounds a lot like parenting; you either do what your parents did or you don’t because you hated the way your parents raised you. Indeed, my main advisor’s approach was to be invasive and overly hands-on in my training (sometimes spilling into unsolicited personal advice) to compensate for the neglectful training he received from his own grad school professors.
Like parents, I found that some grad school professors resorted to attempts to shame me for my decisions, my career goals, my priorities, my health status, my politics, and (at least implicitly) my identities. At the time, I simply assumed my professors just had a bad habit of making passive aggressive comments.
One professor, in an effort to make me feel bad (or shame me) for prioritizing activism, remarked — “what… too much service?” — when I revealed to her that I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I did not bother to justify that service was one of the few outlets I had to keep going in grad school. Rather, I simply said that the pressure to publish (which I started feeling as early as my first semester) was beginning to take a toll.
Another professor snidely responded, “OK, ‘Mister Activism’,” when I proposed a collaborative conference session on the social psychology of sexuality between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association. You would think I proposed a queer kiss-in at the conference to protest the discipline’s legacy of devaluing research on sexuality and LGBTQ communities.
A third interrupted my practice “elevator speech,” to ask — “we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” — after only one sentence of my introduction, that I came to academe by way of activism. Her humor did not indicate exaggeration or fiction; another professor’s public message to me confirmed her assessment of the goal of graduate school: deradicalization.
Short of concerns about limited time, I still do not understand these professors’ deep commitment to eliminating activism from my career as a scholar. I have them to thank for my record of “objective” publications. Activism has never posed a problem to my work as an academic; if anything, it has enhanced it, steering me into research that I actually care about and see myself in.
I suppose their concern is purely philosophical or epistemological (or, really, political). Unlike learning my subfields via classical theoretical pieces, debates in the field, and classical and contemporary empirical pieces, they did not offer evidence of the evils of activism. They took the approach of “trust me on this” or “don’t do activism because I said so.” They did not use the tools of scholarship to train the activism out of me, or to convince me to compartmentalize it. Rather, they resorted, from the start, to the use of shame. And, to a fair degree, they were successful in forcing me to learn to hate, be suspicious of, and feel bad about my activist spirit – the consequences of a fragmented, traumatized self. I am still struggling today to see myself as a legitimate scholar because I cannot help but be a scholar-activist. Shame on me!
I am not alone in being the subject of shame-based “training” in graduate school. For example, I know of others who were, like me, shamed for taking a tenure-track position at a liberal arts school, thereby “wasting” their advisors’ investment in their careers. Professors aren’t relying on scholarly theorizing or findings to convince their students that jobs at Research I universities are the superior career path; rather, Father (or Mother) Knows Best, and you should feel bad for not wanting that life.
I have directly observed or heard about fellow graduate students being shamed for prioritizing their health, family, or personal life in general over their training. I have noticed an awful trend in the academy broadly to shame women who desire to or actually have children. Despite the possibility of balancing school with family life, some professors (or colleagues and administrators) resort to questioning mothers’ commitment to their academic careers. Mothers are left to feel ashamed if, in the end, they are not able to succeed in the academy; of course, they are discouraged from interrogating the motherhood penalty, sexism, lack of family-friendly policies, and excessive demands to publish as barriers to their ability to succeed.
Graduate programs, I believe, are using the unspoken tool of shame to force graduate students to conform to the ideal academic career. It is an incredibly effective strategy, for grad students will adopt the tendency to self-police for years after they earn their PhDs. But, this shame reflects conformity into a certain way to be a scholar — essentially, the detached and unattached (read: “objective”) middle-class white heterosexual cis man without disabilities who can put his career above all else. Shame on you if you dare to be someone else.
Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger
Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
Now 31 years old, I am still struggling to figure out my gender identity. I knew by age 5 that I was unlike other boys, even declaring to my mother that I should have been born a girl. I came out as bisexual as a senior in high school, then gay in my freshman year of college. With exposure to feminist and queer theories and activism in college, I found a more fitting identity — queer — to reflect my own sense of gender and attraction to masculinity broadly defined (no matter others’ bodies or sex).
But I have graduate school to thank for my stepping back into the closet, at least in terms of my gender identity and expression — and for nine years of wrestling with the tension between my queer gender identity and the masculinist norms and expectations of academe.
Sociology became a woman-dominated discipline — at least in terms of degrees awarded — before I ever became a sociology major in college. In 2012, women were close to half or more of the faculty in two-thirds of sociology graduate programs in America, representing huge growth over the previous decade. (I imagine this number is much lower for women sociologists at the associate and full professor levels. And gender equity may have stalled, or even reversed, with the overrepresentation of women among adjunct professors.) But in 2012, only 22 percent of graduate departments had more than one-quarter of their faculty specializing in the sociology of gender — and the same number making a genuine commitment to women scholars and the sociological study of gender.
In my own graduate training, I found even some of the faculty members who specialized in gender did not encourage research in this area. The discouragement seemed strongest for those planning to use qualitative methods (too “touchy-feely”), feminist and queer lenses (too “activisty”), and feminist or gender studies approaches (too interdisciplinary). Despite commendable representation of (cis)women in my department and the discipline more generally, I learned that many (men) sociologists appear to hate women and see masculinity as central to good scholarship.
In reading A. W. Strouse’s essay criticizing the inherent heterosexism and queerphobia of American graduate education, I finally realized that I am not alone in struggling with the white heteromasculinist under- and overtones of my graduate training. As Strouse aptly points out, professional (re)socialization of graduate school is centrally a task of eliminating passion, love, creativity and originality from would-be scholars’ lives — or at least presenting ourselves as detached, subdued, conforming — that is, “professional.”
In our writing, we were discouraged from “flowery,” verbose and creative prose, instead getting to the point concisely and speaking with unwavering authority. In fact, it is best to avoid writing in the first person at all costs so as to present arguments as taken-for-granted truths, rather than offered by an individual scholar. There is a reason why the feminist scholarly practice of being transparent about one’s social location never caught on in mainstream sociology; seemingly objective research is the highest form of inquiry, and everything else is suspect.
Masculinist authority was equally valued in how one presents one’s research in workshops, talks and conferences. As one grad school professor warned me, “none of this ‘shy guy’ stuff” — scholarly presentations were not actually spaces to present incomplete projects or uncertainty. (And don’t even think about attempting to shirk male privilege by rejecting an authoritative tone and presence!) Whatever it means to be a “shy guy” was seen as distracting at best, or antithetical to my scholarship at worse. I could not help but assume that this professor’s comment was a more polite way of telling me to “man up.” And, upon comparing notes with a cis gay man in the program, I learned that the professor had, indeed, a reputation for telling queer men students to “man up.” Perhaps I had been pegged as too sensitive for the harsher, more offensive version of this advice.
I have wrestled, more generally, with the demand to strip away all emotion. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have criticized me for becoming increasingly more angry as I present at conferences, that my own rage about oppression and the detriment it has on the health of oppressed individuals is inappropriate for an academic setting. I learned to stop pounding my fist on the podium, but I have not quite mastered the stiff upper lip. Showing emotion is weak; a true scholar would never be so personally invested in the plight of marginalized communities.
To my surprise, the devaluation of femininity is not limited to the erasure of feminine expressions in academics who were assigned male at birth. I have witnessed the policing of femininity in cisgender women academics, even those who are femme presenting.
For example, two weeks in a row in my Preparing Future Faculty course, the cis woman professor chastised cis women students for their “feminine” and “girly” behavior. I agree that beginning a presentation or conversation by apologizing in advance for subpar quality or ideas only serves to undermine what one has to say. But I found it quite troubling that a woman professor so openly, publicly and forcefully berated these women students for their feminine presentation of self, especially in a mixed-gender class. Perhaps a private conversation, wherein the professor could talk more at length about her concerns about the sexist ways in which women scholars are received in the academy, would have been better and less offensive. But, then again, this is the same professor who interrupted my own presentation to ask, “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?” Clearly, academic training is about beating graduate students into submission and conformity.
I have heard women friends and colleagues note the related practice of rewarding masculinity in women in academe. Short hairstyles and masculine attire appeared to be much more common among my grad department’s most successful women faculty. The more assertive you could be, the better. The more you could do to reject your femaleness and femininity, the more successful you could be in the academy. Women who insisted on having children should calculate pregnancy just right so that they could “pop one out” during a break in the school year. I am often shocked by how openly academics and academic institutions attempt to regulate women scholars’ reproductive choices and sex lives. Some women academics are complicit, unapologetically giving advice to “keep your legs closed,” delay motherhood as long as possible or forgo it all together.
It has taken me three years post-Ph.D. to recognize the role my graduate education has played in stalling my gender journey. I entered the program beginning to embrace a genderqueer identity and reject the restrictive category of “man.” In a different life, I might be well on my way to rocking stylish, colorful outfits, being as fab as I want to be, or at least much more comfortable in my unique skin. But, in this life, I have to first recover from the damage of my graduate training to my sense of self.
I have only recently reclaimed a genderqueer identity, now finding “nonbinary” to better describe who I am as a gendered being. I have slowly dropped the suit and tie as a protective shield and begun to slowly come out publicly as kind of, sort of trans. Another path to my own liberation sadly entails rejecting the femmephobia, queerphobia and transphobia of the academy. Embracing an authentic gender identity and expression entails reconceptualizing what it means to be a scholar. (Why are the two intertwined in the first place!)
No advice to offer to others just yet — my apologies for that. But I hope that more of us will acknowledge, critique and resist the ways in which academe polices the gender presentation of scholars.
Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
I am the only black LGBTQ professor on my campus (as far as I know). I am black, yet multiracial and multiethnic (black, white and Jewish). I am a queer man, yet genderqueer and nonbinary. I am an activist, yet working with and in the system of higher education to make a difference in society. And, I am pretenure … with no additional caveats.
I have taken up the identity of a unicorn because my existence, both on the campus and in society in general, is nearly mythical. And I regularly live with the fear that it is easier for the institution to crush me, eliminate me or force me to assimilate than it is for me to actually change the institution to include me, respect me and value me. I have exhausted a great deal of energy navigating the tension between efforts to ensure my survival as a person and those to ensure my job security; what constitutes excellence in teaching and research tends to prioritize the very things that exclude me, erase me or silence me.
But now I am in therapy, working through the traumatizing experience of graduate school. I am properly medicated to minimize the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, from which I have suffered since my third year of grad school. I have found friends and colleagues who support me in pursuing my self-defined career as an intellectual activist. And, most importantly, I have ensured that those things that will most certainly grant me tenure — publications and good student evaluations — are taken care of before anything else, while also prioritizing self-care and personal fulfillment.
My own well-being and livelihood aside, the importance of being authentic and visible for others, especially my students, was the strongest impetus to take back control of my life and my career. Early on, despite hiding in fear behind suits and a guarded demeanor, I had students who sensed that a more radical, social justice-oriented and vulnerable person was lurking behind the mask — and that they sorely needed that unicorn to come out of from hiding.
As I have taken better care of myself, and, as such, found room to take more chances in being public, I have found even more students expressing their appreciation for my visibility. In two recent examples, I wrote opinion pieces for my university’s newspaper, The Collegian: one was a “love letter” to students of color who frequently feel miserable on our predominantly white campus, and the other was a coming out of sorts as a nonbinary-identified professor. I have attended more events related to social justice, often sharing my own experiences and viewpoint, rather than hiding behind the myth of objective scientific expertise. I am often rewarded with what feels like reciprocated love from many students of color, LGBTQ students and women students — especially those who belong to more than one of these groups.
My activism on the campus, thus far, has not felt incredibly radical. I have made myself visible as a fat black queer nonbinary feminist intellectual activist. With time, therapy, medication and support, I am now less afraid to be visible as a unicorn at this institution. I no longer hide behind a mask that unintentionally sent the message that success for marginalized people requires extensive compromise, hiding and/or “souling” out. The students’ reactions — ranging from a passing thank-you to heartfelt emails and Facebook friend requests (which are declined until they graduate) — demonstrate to me that there is something inherently radical about my visibility on campus. And that the campus is so lacking in diversity — particularly at the intersections among minority identities — that it seems the students are hungry to see something different, or even something like them in the case of marginalized students (fellow unicorns).
I have already griped about the additional labor I feel as a diversity token. Where the university is ill equipped to adequately support students of color, LGBTQ students and first-generation and working-class students, the slack is picked up by faculty and staff members (often of those very backgrounds). Or these students simply fall through the cracks. Sometimes both.
But I also appreciate the importance of my presence, my visibility, my authenticity and my advocacy. Without ever agreeing to serve on a committee related to diversity, I can be a face and a voice that contributes to the sense of diversity and inclusion on the campus. Without taking on honors thesis and internship students, and the more informal advising that is common in supporting marginalized students, I can be a source of support by addressing diversity and social justice in my classes. I sometimes have to turn away a marginalized student; this is incredibly heartbreaking, but I know that such additional emotional labor is not valued and might even take away from the tasks that actually “count” professionally — the very things that will help me keep this job for the long haul.
Lately, I have been thinking of the “visibility of one” that I offer to my campus as something akin to the personal hot spot feature of cellphones. This feature essentially allows your phone to provide internet access to multiple devices. It is great technology, though I have never actually used it myself. But it makes for an interesting analogy to the kind of energy I feel I send to others on campus.
From my own visibility as a unicorn, it seems that I am able to allow others to feel seen, to feel they are not alone, to feel their struggles and experiences are valid and recognized, and to feel loved and in community. I would like to think that my writing, my approach to teaching and, at a basic level, my presence at the university is helping to boost others like me. While students — especially those who are of color and/or LGBTQ — lack support from the institution, they can find some virtual support from me.
But like cellphone hot spots, this kind of visibility of one has a huge drawback: it is draining work. My battery life depletes much more quickly. So I must also be intentional about equipping students to find support from multiple places, to advocate for themselves, to prioritize their own self-care and perhaps to become their own personal hot spot of visibility to help others. I have gotten better about leaving work behind every weekday at 5 p.m. and giving myself a true break over the weekends. I have had to turn down service requests that do not yield long-term opportunities (especially potential leadership roles).
In the long term, I want to push the institution to further diversify its faculty, focusing on both recruitment and retention, and to put resources in place that prioritize marginalized students’ success and well-being. Since I am more emotionally healthy today, I can afford to be a visibility hot spot for fellow unicorns on the campus. But it cannot be an alternative to real institutional change. Ideally, the university will provide “visibility Wi-Fi” throughout the campus (e.g., diversity in every office and department, diversity-promoting policies) so that individuals no longer need to serve as visibility hot spots.