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Please, #ThankAPublicScholar

PublicScholar

In this morning’s post on academic freedom, I discussed the real dangers inherent in being a public scholar (especially for critical scholars of marginalized backgrounds).  Let me be clear: job security in the face of external threats is not a trivial matter.  Indeed, the lifetime job security afforded by tenure, and the general academic freedom afforded to most scholars is one of the major perks of this profession over others.  But, attacks on scholars like Saida Grundy, Steven Salaita, Anthea Butler, Brittney Cooper, Tony Brown, and Sarak Kenzdoir highlight that tenure and academic freedom are not enough to protect public scholars from libel and slander, hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.

It’s time to be real.  Being a public scholar is dangerous.  And, it’s generally a thankless job that many of us volunteer to do.  Rarely does it count toward tenure and promotion, so we truly are doing it because we believe in justice and want to make a difference in the world beyond the ivory tower.  In line with my call for the creation of supportive communities for public scholars (and in general), I propose a call to action to start supporting and thanking our colleagues who write and speak in public, who critique injustice and oppression, and those who work for and/or with community groups.

  1. Share a public scholar’s work with your networks.  Share blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, listservs.  Forward their work to those who might find it useful for their work, well-being, or understanding of the world.  Include their work in your classes, perhaps as assigned reading or for extra credit.  Help your colleagues broaden their reach.
  2. Engage a public scholar’s work.  If you like a blog post you read, comment or write a response on your own blog.  Tweet a response rather than just reteweeting.  Or, send them a email if you prefer to communicate privately.  Be careful not to convey disagreement as hostility or a character assault.
  3. Say “thank you” and “I appreciate you.”  I recommend this particularly when you see a colleague coming under fire, but this should be a regular habit, too.  Send a short email to let them know you appreciate their work and the time they put into it.  Send a tweet using the hashtag, #ThankAPublicScholar, to note why you appreciate them, and to encourage others to follow them, as well.  If you’re like me, sometimes you get starstruck when you meet very popular/visible public scholars; try to avoid this to simply engage them as a human and colleague (they’ll appreciate it).
  4. Push your department/university to recognize and value public scholarship toward tenure and promotion.  This should also entail offering greater protection to public scholars who may, at any time, become the target of hostility and threats.

I don’t say this because I want to be showered with praise and appreciation.  But, I can tell you that becoming a target with little explicit support from colleagues can feel very isolating.  I would be lying if I said I simply ignored the haters; I have, indeed, been emotionally affected, and spend a lot less time on social media than before.  I relish the ever-growing traffic that this blog sees, but the numbers pale in comparison to a simple note that says “thank you for writing this.”  We, as scholars, are inundated with critique, from peer review to student evaluations to tenure and promotion.  But, those critiques can feel like a pinprick compared to the ugly backlash some public scholars have faced.

So, will you heed my call?  Will you thank a public scholar or two for me?  Thank you.

Academic Freedom Won’t Protect Us

“One day,” the tenure-obsessed mindset suggests, “I’ll be able to speak freely, pursue controversial projects, and teach on controversial subjects.”  Successful completion of the seven-year-long probationary period will offer me the ultimate goal for any scholar: academic freedom.  As I finish my second year in a tenure-track position at University of Richmond, I already feel underwhelmed with what tenure supposedly offers to my life.

I say that I am underwhelmed with my future tenured life for two reasons.  The first, which I have written about before, is that I am tired of waiting for the day when I can finally be the academic I want to be.  I don’t know that I’ll come out of the other end of the tenure-track in one piece if I keep prioritizing success by mainstream standards over authenticity, my values and identities, my health and well-being, and my happiness.

The second reason tenure underwhelms me is that I am no longer under the illusion that academic freedom will truly protect me.  Maybe I was naive to ever believe that any institution could truly protect me.  The attacks several colleagues have faced over the past year have made this abundantly clear to me.

Academic Freedom As Academic Tolerance

Scholars receive conflicting messages from universities about the value of public scholarship and the extent to which we are protected should the public not like what we have to say.  Some leaders in the academy go as far as to say that it is our obligation as scholars to engage the public.  On the other hand, few junior scholars are under the illusion that service — here, I am including community service, advocacy, and intellectual activism — counts much toward tenure.  I would argue that speaking to (but not with) the public as an expert about one’s research is likely the most valued service; service that falls into the realm of advocacy, activism, and community service is the least valued, perhaps even devalued.  Still, there is a limit to what public engagement universities value, as indicated by the slow movement to count open access publishing toward promotion and to facilitate and support this form of scholarship.  Perhaps the academy simply has not caught up with technological advancements, new forms of social media, and political, social, and generational shifts among academics.

Boston University’s recent handling of the conservative outcry over sociologist Dr. Saida Grundy’s tweets about race and racism highlight that universities will only protect a scholar’s academic freedom to a point.  SoCawlege.com, a conservative site that caters to US college students, featured an article that took issue with several of Dr. Grundy’s tweets about race, racism, slavery, colonization, and Bruce Jenner from the past few months.  It is unclear why the site or the article’s author took issue with Dr. Grundy and her tweets, as she was not already highly visible as a public scholar; she recently finished her PhD at University of Michigan, and will begin as an Assistant Professor at Boston U in July.  That article set off a firestorm among conservative media outlets, including Fox News, all which painted her as a racist (and sexist) bigot who could not be trusted to treat her white male BU students fairly; many called for her termination from a position she has not yet even begun.

Initially, BU’s media liaison noted the university’s respect for Dr. Grundy’s freedom of speech.  However, as the backlash grew, the university’s president issued a statement denouncing Dr. Grundy’s comments:

Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive, and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.

Although the university defends Dr. Grundy’s “right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations,” the president argued that:

[W]e also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people. As a university president, I am accustomed to living in a world where faculty do—and should—have great latitude to express their opinions and provoke discussion. But I also have an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members. That is why I weigh in on this issue today.

Why did the university initially respect her freedom of speech, but then cease to protect her academic freedom?  Why didn’t the university stand up to a site called “SoCawledge” and notoriously biased conservative media outlets like Fox News?  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom offered a compelling explanation on her blog:

Institutions are inherently conservative. They are built to last. One way that institutions last is by diffusing threats to the status quo across org charts, rules, forms, email chains and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. That is why it is ridiculous to expect college institutions to be radical.

It seemed Dr. Grundy’s critical perspective on racism was acceptable — even protected — until she pissed white people off.  Or, as others have speculated, perhaps Dr. Grundy’s views and public engagement were protected so long as it didn’t hurt the university financially.  Her work, public engagement, and perspective are all protected so long as it does not negatively affect the university.  If this assertion is true, that’s not academic freedom — or it’s conditional academic freedom, or maybe academic freedom with a price tag.  What academic freedom entails is much more limited that many scholars realize.

What’s most insulting is that BU’s public reprimand of Dr. Grundy’s critique of slavery, racism, and hegemonic white masculinity essentially placed her comments in the same category as the racist comments by Duke political scientist Jerry Hough: as hurtful racial stereotypes.  Other scholars and activists didn’t bat an eye at her Tweets because they are supported by a great deal of theoretical and empirical work on racism; her own department at BU was unwavering in its defense of her perspective and scholarship.  Friends, colleagues, and future students stepped forward to express their support for Dr. Grundy, as well. However, the university distanced itself from Dr. Grundy because of gross mischaracterizations of her comments.  It seemed as though the university responded more to the perversion that became her words rather than her perspective itself.  (I’m sure Dr. Grundy’s apology and publicly expressed regret over her words fueled this.)

What I am getting at here is that the university didn’t stand up for Dr. Saida Grundy because her perspective is grounded in prior research.  BU’s president didn’t say, “Dr. Grundy’s critique is important and accurate, though poorly received and misunderstood by the public.”  The university didn’t engage with her perspective at all; it only responded to it from a distance — that she was free to say whatever she wanted, that her academic freedom is protected (unless it pisses white people off).  This, to me, highlights that academic freedom may actually constitute a form of tolerance for scholars’ ideas, research, and perspective with no real engagement from universities.  Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.

What universities actually offer is academic tolerance.  That tolerance appears to be quite low for scholars of color who dare to critique racism and white privilege.  The message to all scholars of color is clear: watch what you say.  There is a white way, and a wrong way, to talk about race.  Choose wisely.

Beyond Protecting Our Ideas And Words

In theory, a college or university’s assurance that it will protect you from external threats to your career is critical and a major perk of an academic career.  Unfortunately, this conceptualization of academic freedom does not match the reality that many scholars face as they brave the risky task of public scholarship.  Countless scholars, particularly women and people of color, have been harassed, been subject to hate mail, or, worse, have received death threats in response to op-eds, blog posts, tweets, and other media appearances.  Too many examples:

  • Earlier this month, (tenured) sociologist Dr. Tony N. Brown was attacked by Fox News and other conservative media outlets and blogs, and continues to receive threats of violence and hate mail — a backlash to an honest op-ed about racism and white privilege in the The Tennessean.
  • Dr. Anthea Butler, a (tenured) religious studies professor at U Penn, is regularly attacked by conservatives and bigots for her  critical views on race and racism (e.g., the verdict for George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin), and religion.  It occurs so regularly, she decided to create a Tumblr, The Things People Say, devoted to hateful and hostile comments she receives from trolls and bigots.
  • Dr. Brittney Cooper (featured, along with Dr. Anthea Butler in this article about backlash), is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and is also regularly subject to trolling, hate mail, and threats of violence.  On a panel we did together at University of Maryland on intellectual activism (around 01:02:00), she shared more details about her appearance being made fun of, and calculated efforts to have her and her colleagues fired from Rutgers.
  • Anthropologist Dr. Sarah Kendzior (writer, independent researcher, and reporter) was subject to threats of sexual violence after being cited in an article at Jacobin magazine on modern sexism.  Many were shocked that these rape threats came from self-identified liberals and radicals.
  • University of Illinois rescinded an offer for an associate professor position to Dr. Steven Salaita, a Native American studies scholar, because of his commentary about Israel on Twitter.  UIUC argued that his behavior failed to meet the university’s standards of civility — a justification that was not supported by the university’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

With the exception of Dr. Salaita, the aforementioned scholars were professionally protected.  That is, despite external threats, even calls for their dismissals from their respective positions, they weren’t fired.  But, what have their colleagues, departments, universities, and professional organizations done to protect them from the intangible harm to their reputations?  From the online trolling and hostility?  From the hate mail and threats of violence?

I suspect the answers to my questions are nothing — they should just be grateful they didn’t get fired.  Or, they should have anticipated these risks as public scholars.  Said another way, they are to be blamed for the hostility and threats they face by sharing their scholarship and scholarly opinion with the public.  (Victim-blaming.)

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium; Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium — Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America: Ethics, Technology, and Constraints

Academic Freedom In The 21st Century

In light of universities’ apparent mere tolerance for controversial perspectives in the academy, and the obvious risks entailed in engaging the public, I wonder — what role do public scholars play in society?  Or, considering the trickiness of public scholarship in the 21st century, Dr. Anthea Butler more aptly asks, “[w]hat is the role of a public intellectual in the age of Twitter and soundbites? Is it to share your thoughts for the public good, or is it to curate the heaps of hate emails, tweets and right-wing articles that trash your intellectual and social work?”

Inevitably, every panel I have served on and attended about intellectual activism and public scholarship engages the crucial use of social media today.  But, the very technological tools that have made it easy for any scholar to become a public scholar overnight has also made it easier for public scholars to become targets of conservatives, trolls, and bigots.  Ideally, the academy will eventually catch up with the technological advancements in order to adequately conceptualize and protect academic freedom in an increasingly digital age.  But, that’s not enough.  Public scholars, particularly those of marginalized backgrounds, will only be adequately protected from public backlash when institutions embody greater academic bravery.  In the mean time, we must forge our own supportive networks and communities to buffer the painful attacks we face when speaking and writing in public.

These two points, academic bravery and supportive communities for public scholars, were raised during the panel on intellectual activism on which I served at U Maryland in April (especially around 00:55:45).  Dr. Brittney Cooper noted that there is a great deal of “academic cowardice” — that, too often, scholars avoid speaking up and speaking out, particularly against injustice and oppression, for fear of professional consequences.  This tendency is likely greatest among pre-tenure faculty.  But, many of us of marginalized backgrounds know that the good (Audre) Lorde said, “[y]our silence will not protect you.”  We cannot prioritize our livelihood as individuals at the expense of our communities; conversely, we cannot engage in our communities too much, for we may risk our jobs in institutions that devalue such work.  This burden weighs heavy on oppressed scholars.

But, this does not have to be our reality.  Our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and the academy in general could be braver in supporting us as we take on the risky work of public scholarship.  Ideally, universities will have more integrity in standing with critical scholars, balking at inappropriate threats to cease donating to and funding them because of controversial scholarship.  Universities that proclaim to promote diversity should be brave in refusing to cater to the demands of bigots and conservatives who are hostile to diversity.  Professional organizations, like my own (American Sociological Association), will actually advocate on behalf of professors who come under attack, rather than staying silent or even adding to the attacks.  If “professors have a right and perhaps a duty to be ‘radical’ in its purest sense,” we can only effectively do our job if we are shielded from hostility and threats from the public when our views are misunderstood or rejected.

That’s a nice dream that I’ll likely never experience in my career in academia.  The reality remains: once I get tenure, I can bank on academic tolerance.  But, all of my public engagement and intellectual activism is at my own risk.  I can (mostly) count on not losing my job if certain groups dislike my perspective and research.  But, I’ll need to turn elsewhere for support when I endure hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.

This is where the need for supportive communities comes in — another point that Dr. Britney Cooper made on our panel.  She noted that her fellow bloggers at the Crunk Feminist Collective serve as her support system to weather the regular hostility and threats she receives.  And, our friends, family, and colleagues with whom we don’t blog also can serve as our support network.  This support system can serve many functions: checking in on us; reading responses to our writing so that we don’t; reminding us to disengage from social media when negativity is heightened, but also to take breaks in general; to counter the negative messages with messages of love, support, and validation.  Let’s be clear about it: being a public scholar comes with risks, and academic freedom isn’t enough to protect us.  We are responsible for building and utilizing our own supportive networks to buffer the risks that arise.  And, this frankly goes for anyone, from part-time tweeter to daily blogger to regular guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, because any public writing can be picked up and taken to task by the media.  (Even scholars who aren’t necessarily engaging the public can come under attack.)

Concluding Thoughts

In general, dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression is dangerous work.  Attempting to do so through, or at least within, academia is dangerous, for academic institutions are hardly separate from the rest of our racist nation.  In the long-term, ideally we can hold academic institutions and organizations accountable for protecting scholars’ academic freedom, period.  In the short term, we are responsible for protecting our selves, and relying on our own supportive communities to weather the storms that may come as we do critical and, sometimes, controversial work.

At a minimum, let’s get real about academia.  Academic freedom won’t protect us.  Tenure won’t protect us.  Our silence in the academy won’t protect us.

101 Big And Small Ways To Make A Difference In Academia

make_a_difference

Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia.  If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change.  But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time.  Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now!  But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.

Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking.  Please add your own ideas in the comments section!

  1. Educate yourself about the state of higher education, particularly in terms of inequality, increasing student debt, and the growing reliance on contingent faculty.  Learn about the leaky pipelines for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
  2. Let go of the myth of meritocracy in academia once and for all.  Do not perpetuate the myth by claiming or assuming that things are fair and equal.  Speak openly and honestly with colleagues and students about inequality in academia.
  3. Recognize community service as a form of service for yourself and others.
  4. Learn more about open access and other ways of making academic research and knowledge publicly accessible.
  5. Redefine “impact” to move beyond impact factors and citation rates.  Consider the impact your work has outside of the ivory tower.  Allow yourself to determine the value of your scholarship, rather than relying exclusively on what departments, universities, and disciplines value as important and meaningful.
  6. Stay true to your goals and values.  Do not let tradition limit your imagination.  Thinking outside of the box is good for science and higher education.
  7. Be brave.
  8. Speak up when you feel safe to do so.
  9. Empower your students and colleagues to speak up.
  10. Ask questions.  If a conversation or meeting raises concern, ask for further clarification.  This allows you to appear curious or possibly confused without automatically challenging someone else.
  11. Prioritize self-care.  Encourage others to do so, as well, or at least respect others’ need to make certain decisions at work based on personal and family needs.
  12. Talk to your students and junior colleagues about what academic careers entail for marginalized scholars.  Be clear that you are not attempting to scare them, rather you are preparing them for challenges that may lie ahead in their careers.
  13. Support graduate students no matter their career plans after graduation.  Begin a mentoring relationship with a conversation about their plans, and be sure to revisit this conversation every year or every other year.
  14. Educate yourself about alternative career paths for PhDs, or at least find resources to offer to students considering them.
  15. Be aware of the artificial hierarchies and rankings in academia and higher education, but do not let them influence how you interact with colleagues.
  16. Check your biases, stereotypes, and assumptions.  If you find that you hold them, find out how to eliminate them, or at least to suspend them in interacting with and evaluating others.  Ask trusted colleagues to call you out if you demonstrate bias; when they do, listen without getting defensive or feeling guilty.
  17. Check your privilege.  Avoid dismissing another person’s experiences or perspective just because it does not mirror yours.  Never tell a marginalized student or colleague about their own experience.  Figure out ways to use your privileged status to make a difference and to make space for marginalized people.
  18. Ask your students and colleagues for their preferred name and pronoun, and give your own.  Work to make these seem like a normal practice, rather than a special event when a transgender or gender non-conforming person is present.
  19. Blog and use other forms of social media.  Allow yourself to appear as an imperfect, evolving, thinking, and feeling human — not simply the static, perfectly-put together researcher reflected in articles and books.  Make yourself available outside of the ivory tower.
  20. Share your own narrative with colleagues and students, whether it is one of privilege (which you acknowledge), serendipity, or adversity.  Let’s stop pretending that there is one, clear, linear path toward becoming a professor, and that it is the only possible path after graduate school.
  21. Let go of the myth of color-blindness, gender-blindness, and other forms of “blindness” to others’ identities and experiences.  Rather, be conscious of difference and inequality, and find ways to proactively work against systemic discrimination and exclusion.
  22. Without resorting to tokenizing, be sure to include diverse voices and perspectives on conference panels, course syllabi, references, edited volumes, guest blog posts, etc.
  23. Get comfortable with self-promotion, especially if you are a member of one or more marginalized groups.  And, respect others efforts to promote their work, particularly because it is necessary to be successful in academia.
  24. Promote your colleagues’ and students’ work, particularly those from marginalized groups.
  25. Go beyond telling junior colleagues and grad students to “be careful” — and never say “shut up”/”be quiet.”  If you actually have a reason to worry about a particular individual (that is, stop automatically assuming junior scholars will be reckless anarchists), offer specific advice on navigating departmental, university, and disciplinary politics.  Explain why you are giving that advice, namely that you care about their success, well-being, and livelihood.
  26. When possible, make every effort to ensure that students or junior colleagues do not fall through the cracks or bear some burden because others could not be bothered.
  27. At least say hello to familiar faces — students, new colleagues, contingent faculty, administrative staff, etc.
  28. Avoid viewing colleagues as potential competition, even if you are applying for the same opportunity.
  29. Have lunch with students and junior colleagues, and make an effort to talk about something other than work or classes (if you/they are comfortable doing so).  It can be incredibly reassuring to see that one’s professors/senior colleagues are human, too.
  30. Don’t be an asshole.  Period.
  31. Learn how to disagree with someone without attacking them as a person.  If it is not really a right-or-wrong issue, find a way to offer a different, rather than “better,” view.
  32. Step up and step back in meetings.  Avoid dominating the conversation.  If you are chairing it, make an effort to allow everyone to speak.  Pay attention to see if junior scholars have remained silent or were silenced.  But, find a way to gently nudge if someone needs encouragement; avoid putting someone on the spot who may really not have anything to contribute.
  33. Learn about your department’s and university’s policies and practices regarding contingent faculty.  Find out whether there is anything you can do to improve the situation.
  34. Do not treat contingent faculty like servants, outsiders, or somehow inferior.  Treat them like humans first, and colleagues second.  Understand that their circumstances may be shitty, if not outright exploitative.
  35. Serve on important departmental, university, and disciplinary committees.
  36. Serve as department chair or a higher level administrator.
  37. Keep an eye on the balance of service in your department.  Definitely watch for disproportionate service falling on women faculty, either assigned or volunteered (especially as men faculty avoid it).
  38. When accounting for and advancing diversity, avoid nominal diversity — that is, simply counting “women and minorities.”  Find ways to embrace and celebrate diversity in the department/university culture.  Once marginalized students/scholars are in the door, make sure that they feel equally supported and included, and are making good progress in their work.
  39. Move beyond considering only race and gender as diversity.  Broaden race to race, ethnicity, nativity, and immigrant status.  Broaden gender to consider the inclusion of women and transgender and gender non-conforming people.  Begin to recognize and advance sexual identity, disability, social class, weight, religion, age, and family structure as other important dimensions of diversity.
  40. Move beyond a single-identity conceptualization of diversity.  Begin attending to the intersections among identities.  This will help to avoid systematically hiring the most privileged members of oppressed groups (e.g., white women, Black men).  This will also help to understand each individual’s lives holistically; for example, be careful not to view Black women simply as women or Black.
  41. Support working parents.  Educate yourself about your university’s family leave and other policies.  If possible, be willing to offer additional support using the (likely conservative) university policies as a minimum level of support.
  42. Go beyond being “not prejudiced.”  Be aware that oppressed groups, as a matter of survival, must be wary of intolerance or even violence.  Do not assume that not intentionally discriminating is enough for others to feel welcomed and included.
  43. Challenge biased comments and microaggressions in your classes.  Do not wait for students to speak up, as they may not feel comfortable doing so, or may even fail to see the problem — you are the instructor.  If you do not want to alienate the student who made the comment, foster dialogue about it rather than silencing or chastising them.
  44. Allow yourself to view your class as somewhat flexible and organic.  If something relevant or important is going on it the world or on campus, spend a few minutes at the start or end of class discussing it.  Having an honest, intelligent conversation about racism on campus, for example, may be more important in the long run than sticking rigidly to the syllabus.
  45. Let go of the myth of objectivity in research and the classroom.  Or, at least acknowledge that some cling to “objectivity” without noting that such a perspective is conflated with (or only afforded to) the view of white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West.
  46. Where possible, include overlooked and marginalized topics in your courses.  For example, cover transgender health in a course on health/medicine to demonstrate the relevance and importance of the topic (and trans communities in general).
  47. If you (must) use a textbook that excludes or distorts the lives of oppressed communities, explicitly point this out to your students and consider adding additional readings by and/or about members of these communities.
  48. Consider countering the systemic invisibility of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other oppressed communities in academia with the systemic exclusion of white middle-class heterosexual cis men without disabilities.  Start with oppressed voices, and only include those of the privileged if they are a useful complement.  Unfortunately, I must also advise being ready to defend this system against charges of “reverse discrimination.”
  49. Speak truth to power.  Do research that challenges others’ exclusive, biased, or distorted research.  Embrace your unique perspective (if you are marginalized) to influence a new way of viewing the world.
  50. Let’s be honest about pervasive mental health problems in academia.  Find out what resources exist on campus, in the local community, and online.  Recognize that many campus health centers fail to effectively address the needs of graduate students.  Be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing others’ well-being as “not my problem.”
  51. If you use images in your lectures or presentations, take a little extra time to ensure that you reflect diverse people and interests.  If you lazily choose one of the first images that comes up, you may end up exclusively with pictures of white men.  (For example, do a Google image search of “professor.”)  Make an effort to counter the stereotypical images that many students will carry.
  52. Educate yourself about universal design for learning.  From the start of developing a course, make efforts to make the material and discussion accessible to all students.  Avoid the pattern of simply accommodating students with disabilities when they are in your courses.
  53. Become critical of standard measures of academic ability and achievement, including the SAT, GRE, and other tests, grade point average, etc.  Educate yourself about the bias inherent in these exams that likely contribute to inequality in admission, retention, graduation, and funding.
  54. Acknowledge the high rate of sexual violence on college campuses — targeted against students and staff and faculty.  Learn about your university’s practices for handling reports of violence, and realize that few incidents are reported, and even fewer yield justice for the victims.  Educate yourself about ways to support survivors of violence.  Consider advocating for improving how sexual violence is reported and prosecuted.
  55. Respect or even encourage your students’ and colleagues’ activist efforts.  Avoid telling them activism is akin to bias, or cannot co-exist with academia, or is a waste of time.
  56. Be authentic.  Let students and colleagues see diversity in academia.  If you are marginalized, do your best to avoid sending the message that one must sell-out in order to succeed in the academy.
  57. Investigate whether your campus offers gender-neutral bathrooms.  If it does not, pressure campus administration to create gender-neutral bathrooms that are of the same quality and are as conveniently accessed as sex-segregated bathrooms.  If it only has one or a few gender-neutral bathrooms, push for the creation of more.  Create a map of campus that pinpoints where these restrooms can be found to publicize their existence and location.
  58. Educate yourself about the conditions for staff on your campus.  Are wages fair and equitable?  Are working conditions safe?  Are staff given a voice in administrative affairs?
  59. Attend your university’s safe zone/safe space training program.  Encourage your colleagues to do so, as well.  If they reply, “but, I am already so LGBT-friendly, I don’t need extra training,” explain that taking that extra step to demonstrate friendliness is necessary because many LGBT people assume the absence of it may mean hostility.  (It is a matter of survival in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic world!)  If your university does not have a safe zone/space program, consider starting one.
  60. Explicitly tell your students that you want them to do well in your courses — and mean it.  (I have always done this, and was told just recently that most professors don’t and, as such, students’ don’t assume it.)
  61. Encourage your students to meet with you during office hours.  It may help to offer an incentive, but I hesitate to encourage that it be required.  Be sure you have explained the purpose of office hours when you mention them.  If there are students whose performance concerns you, do not hesitate to (privately) ask them to meet with you — but, make clear that they are not being punished.
  62. Avoid trivializing students’ health concerns, including (and maybe especially) mental health problems.  Refer them to the proper health professional if necessary.  Do not attempt to assess the problem, how severe it is, or how to “cure” it if you are not a qualified health professional.
  63. When you give advice, still respect that others may ignore it.  Allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them.  Do not pressure a student or junior colleague to do what you think is “best,” especially if you do not know them beyond a professional relationship.
  64. Be mindful of power dynamics, particularly where you are in the higher position.  Students, junior colleagues, and others in the subordinate position may feel that your suggestions are demands.  They may hesitate to challenge you, correct your assumptions about them, and even to share certain (personal) details with you for fear of harm to their grades/job.
  65. If you are a mentor, encourage your mentees to consider having additional mentors.  Avoid presenting your perspective and advice as the only way.  If time allows and mentees are comfortable with it, consider holding joint meetings with their other mentors; this may save them the time of holding individual meetings about one issue, and then having to navigate potentially conflicting advice.
  66. Learn about contrapower sexual harassment.  If you teach about sexual violence, include this topic in your courses.
  67. Write op-eds and letters to the editor to the school’s newspaper about issues on campus or in the local community.  You may even offer a scholarly perspective to demonstrate how our everyday lives are actually connected to what we learn in the classroom.
  68. Make some concept or trend in your discipline accessible by writing op-eds and letters to the editor to local, national, or international media.  Or, write about your own research.
  69. Just as you ensure that working parents are not burdened by work, make sure that colleagues who do not have children are not asked to pick up additional work.  No matter one’s family situation, or reason for needing to leave work by 6pm, every worker’s personal life should be respected (especially if they are not officially paid for extra hours).
  70. On Twitter, participate in #SaturdaySchool, and then help build academic online communities by participating in #ScholarSunday.
  71. Work with your department and university — or demand of them — that standards for tenure and promotion be stated as explicitly as possible.  Ask that the rates of successful promotions be provided, including a comparison by race and ethnicity, gender, and other important statuses.
  72. Teach community-based learning courses.  Or, find less intensive ways to encourage working with the community.
  73. Start a scholarship.
  74. Commit to recycling and cutting waste.  Start a recycling program if your university does not already have one.  If you must print documents, use double-sided printing.  Encourage (or even require) students to email assignments.  If you scan documents that will be printed, take the time to eliminate dark areas to reduce wasted ink.
  75. Participate in your department or university’s Dr. Martin Luther King day celebrations.  If your school is closed, take a second to explain the significance of the day — don’t just call it a holiday.  If it is not closed, advocate for closing to observe MLK day or at least hold a meaningful ceremony to honor his legacy.
  76. Participate in Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, LGBT Pride month/week (varies by school), Disability Awareness Month, National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other national and regional celebrations.  If these celebrations are not recognized, start a committee to plan events for them.
  77. Participate in Take Back the Night and other Sexual Assault Awareness Month events.
  78. Invite graduate students to participate on important departmental committees.  Consider encouraging the graduate students to create and elect a representative position — or even multiple positions — and give them a vote.  When they vote or otherwise participate in discussion, genuinely listen and consider their input.  (Grad students are not dumb.  They will sense that you have only included them out of obligation or to appease them, but do not seriously consider what they have to say.)
  79. Take a developmental, rather than destructive, approach to the peer-review process.  View your role as a reviewer as one to advance a paper, which will ultimately advance science, rather than one of a gate-keeper or critic.  Avoid looking for ways to advance your own research or agenda.
  80. Put extra copies of books that you assign on reserve at the library and announce that you have done so in your classes (twice).  Some students will attempt to find ways around buying expensive textbooks, including some who will never obtain a copy and thus suffer in the course.  Do your best to find cheaper or free options in the first place.
  81. Investigate whether every building on campus is accessible.  Pressure or even work with university administration to renovate buildings that are currently inaccessible to all people, regardless of ability.
  82. Check your own and others’ classist beliefs.  Assume class diversity.  Do not assume that anyone in academia, whether student or faculty, comes from a middle-class or upper-class family.  Where possible, try to minimize out-of-pocket costs for classes, extracurricular activities, conferences, and professional development.  In evaluating students or colleagues, be mindful that some simply cannot afford special, or even some basic, opportunities.  Avoid confusing lack of resources with lack of commitment, motivation, or aptitude.
  83. Advocate for needs-blind admission into your university.
  84. Refrain from criticizing the ways in which oppressed people survive in oppressive institutions and societies.  If you are unwilling to support others’ survival, at least avoid adding to their plight with your judgement, criticism, or questioning their identity and politics.
  85. Teach your marginalized students how to survive in oppressive institutions and societies.
  86. Organize a fair or event with information and resources for maintaining healthy relationships.
  87. Investigate whether racial profiling occurs on/near your campus by campus or local police.  If it does, work to raise awareness about it, and with law enforcement to eliminate unfair and discriminatory practices.
  88. If you serve as an academic advisor, be proactive in reaching out to your marginalized and first-generation students, especially during their first year.  Encourage them to get involved with at least one group on campus or in the local community, and to meet with career services as early as possible.
  89. Honor the work of administrative staff in your department and elsewhere on campus by celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Day.  But, be sure to thank them for their work throughout the year, as well.
  90. Propose a conference panel on professional development tips for marginalized academics or on public scholarship.
  91. Practice random acts of kindness.
  92. Organize a social event for your department to get your colleagues out of their offices.
  93. Propose a newspaper program that provides local and national newspapers free to all students, staff, and faculty.
  94. Serve as a faculty or staff advisor for a student organization related to social justice.
  95. Conduct a campus-wide needs assessment for all or particular communities of marginalized students.  Make recommendations for change based on their needs and the campus climate.
  96. Stage a rally or protest about an issue about which your college has remained unresponsive or ignored completely.
  97. Create a campus resource center for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, international students and scholars, people with disabilities, first-generation students, or another disadvantaged group.
  98. Advocate for the creation of accessible, clean, and private spaces for breastfeeding and other needs of parents with young children.
  99. Challenge yourself to be more educated about social justice, more empathetic, kinder, and open to difference and change.
  100. Create an academic program or department that focuses on marginalized communities (e.g., racial and ethnic studies, women’s studies).
  101. Join the fight to minimize or eliminate the growing problem of college student debt.

Please add your own big and small ideas in the comments section.

Academia: Uncharted Territory

There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia.  Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career.  While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define.  The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor.  But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.

The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender.  I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure.  Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example.  Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors).  For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain.  Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.

As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling.  Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others.  Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women.  Women of color know well the status of being a token.  Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever.  While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.

Uncharted Territory

To be completely honest with you, I am scared.  I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search.  Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality.  There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics.  The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.

Strike one: I am black.  I am queer.  I am fat.  (That’s already 3 strikes, right?)  Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism.  Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog).  I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars.  But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.

This is uncharted territory.  That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man.  With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics.  With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways).  But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.

Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available.  On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism.  As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models.  I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today.  At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism.  I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility?  If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?

Paving The Way

I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general.  In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC.  I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program.  After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture.  My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way.  Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.

paving the way

paving the way

While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students.  I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded?  will I ever give the suits a rest?  do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself?  A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless).  Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.

But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark.  I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success.  But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together.  I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security.  But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.

How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors?  Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”?  I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model.  I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general.  I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure.  I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia.  But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream.  I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.

On Dealing With Online Criticism And Trolls For Academics

Haters

If you follow me on Twitter — @grollman 🙂  — you may have seen me complain about online trolls and other criticism every once in a while.  But, I usually give the caveat that what I have faced from nay-sayers online is a mild irritation compared to the hate mail and threats that other academic bloggers (especially women) have received.  Sadly, even the most seasoned among us do not know how to deal with the criticism and hostility we receive online.  How do we stop it?  Or, how do we at least ignore it?  I have zero expertise to offer on the subject, but I do offer a few tips from things that have (and have not) worked for me.

A few tips, which, in places, will seem contradictory — but, choose what works best for you!

  • Pursue legal action… but, don’t bother.  To be safe, I consulted with the legal counsel at my university.  Free speech, which seems so much freer online, eliminates any real options.  Apparently libel is almost impossible to demonstrate because the (huge) burden of proving you were harmed in some way by it falls on you.  Legal dead-ends aside, I found relief in notifying my university and being reassured that what a few cowardly anonymous colleagues say about me online has no baring on my status or job.
  • Also, notify trusted (senior) colleagues.  Initially, I let my chair and dean know just to be on the safe side.  I would rather be ahead of the criticisms to avoid surprises in formal evaluations.  One expected benefit of these conversations was their appreciation of the risks involved on the work that I do (i.e., blogging).  I suppose this links back to the “you’ve arrived” sentiment; if you are pissing off white supremacists and closed-minded colleagues, you must be pushing the right buttons as a scholar.  I do want to express some caution about letting others know because it could backfire, particularly if you must “out” yourself as an activist or blogger or whatever else you might do that is not valued in your department and institution.
  • To extend the point above — do not suffer in silence.  Talk to someone about what you are going through.  When dealing with online criticism and hostility, the anonymity and amorphousness of the internet can make you feel like you are alone in a hostile world.
  • Don’t seek it out!  Fortunately, the criticism I face is almost exclusively contained in one relatively unknown site.  When I stopped visiting that site, I generally stopped being exposed to online criticism.   I realized I was giving power to cowardly, closed-minded colleagues by welcoming the stupid things they say about me into my life.  At the moment, I feel that the opinions that are really worth my attention are those that put as much time and energy into responding to me as I put into my writing.  Negative tweets and comments on your blog/website are quick and easy, often reflecting an unfiltered, grammatically incorrect rant that one would never say to your face.  (Really, why not extend a healthy dialogue by writing a response on your OWN blog?)  Certainly on others’ blogs/sites, do not read the comments!  The downside of this tip is that it will not work for writers and bloggers who have really eager critics and trolls that take the time to email you or contact you in other ways.
  • Ask someone else to keep up with what is written about you on the internet — and only let you know about the most important things, and maybe anything positive.  Really, if someone really wants you to read what they have written, good or bad, they should be sending it directly to you.
  • Related to the previous point — if others let you know about new criticism online, probably out of concern, you do not have to look at it!  Maybe ask them to give a summary if you want to know anything about it.  Or, let them know that, for future reference, you prefer not to know.  Good friends should appreciate that this approach is best for self-care.
  • Don’t take it personally.  Yeah, even I struggle with this one.  But, once some time has passed and there is some distance between me and some bit of criticism, I begin to see that others’ criticism is often a reflection of something other than me.  When I began blogging occasionally for Inside Higher Ed, I received a few comments that essentially say “I am angry about the adjunctification/corporatization of academia,” albeit in the form of a snarky remark toward me.  You may also find that the hostility reflects implicit rules about who is allowed to speak, especially when critiquing academia, or the status quo, etc.  At this stage in my career, some believe I have no right to criticize the discipline or profession.  Besides age/seniority/experience, it seems closed-minded academics are very intolerant of marginalized scholars (and I include here contingent faculty and graduate students) daring to speak up.  These identities and statuses are personal, but criticism outside of real effort engage in dialogue really says more about your critics and their values.

Some of the above I have borrowed from friends’ advice and the following sites: