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Reflections On Failure In Academia

eric-anthony-grollmanNote: I recently contributed to Dr. Veronika Cheplygina‘s blog series, “How I Fail,” to offer my own reflections on failure in academia.  See the original blog post here.  And, be sure to check out Dr. Cheplygina’s earlier writing on failure in the academy (here and here).

How I Fail

Veronika Cheplygina [VC]: Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.

Eric Anthony Grollman [EAG]: I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.

I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.

Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.

VC: Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

EAG: I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.

This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.

VC: What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

EAG: I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.

But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.

I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.

VC: What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

EAG: When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing. While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.

VC: What about when you receive good news? Who do you share the news with, do you have some rewards for yourself?

EAG: Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on Academia.edu. And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.

VC: Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

EAG: As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.

But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.

VC: Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

EAG: Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!

VC: Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

EAG: Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.

But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.

VC: What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

EAG: To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Note: this blog post was also featured on Diverse Issues.

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

On Making Black Life Matter in Academia

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

In the spring, my campus hosted Alicia Garza, who gave a talk on her work as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although her talk — including the content and her energy — was affirming, I left campus that night feeling underwhelmed. Had we invited another high-profile activist to the campus for a one-time talk only to pat ourselves on the backs and then return to business as usual?

I left wondering, do Black lives actually matter at my university, or in the academy in general? Do they hold the same value as the lives of white people on campus? Is Blackness as central to campus culture and history, social life, and university policies as whiteness is? As you can imagine, I would not be writing an essay with such a provocative title if I could answer any of these questions affirmatively.

I had hoped that we would have been mobilized, if not at least inspired, to ensure that Black lives matter on my campus, rather than giving in to the temptation of self-congratulation. There is much that my campus, as with any, could do to achieve a racially just university. A crucial starting point is to take Garza’s advice to envision what it would mean for Black life truly to matter on campuses. Many students of color can easily identify evidence of the devaluing of Black lives on campus — I know I could, too. But the more challenging, and likely more important, task is to articulate what, in fact, valuing Black life would entail. And then to make that happen.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for making Black life matter on campus, without relying solely on high-profile speakers of color.

Racial Diversity Beyond the Numbers

The value of Black life at a particular college or university should not be reduced to the “diversity statistics.” At my own institution, the University of Richmond, we tout that 25 percent of the student body is of color — indeed, commendable progress in the past few years. Yet the numbers of Black, Latinx and Asian-American students are far smaller. To be exact, one in every four students may be of color, but only one in every 16 students is Black. A Black student, then, has a one in 16 chance of seeing a face like their own as they move from place to place around campus.

We cannot assume that a diverse student body produces diverse friend groups, organizations or even classrooms. We cannot assume that it eliminates racial segregation, prejudice and stereotypes. We cannot assume that having one student of color for every three white students is enough to build supportive communities for students of color, particularly when you consider the distinct histories, needs and interests of each racial and ethnic minority group. We must ask ourselves what we assume a modestly diverse student body will bring about on the campus; it may be necessary that we intentionally support or facilitate those changes through new policies and programs — rather than hoping that merely a few more students of color than the previous year will create a racially just campus.

Race in the Classroom

We should also assess how to ensure that Black life matters in a classroom context. How does it feel to be a student of color on college campuses where there is a low level of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty? What if students never have a professor who looks like them in all their years in college? And if they are repeatedly in classes where they are the only minority, or at least one of a small few?

Representation aside, I worry about potential challenges that arise in the classroom for students of color. Could the academic performance of students of color be hindered by stereotype threat — the fear that one is negatively stereotyped because they are a racial or ethnic minority, which becomes a cognitive barrier to one’s schoolwork? Are Black students less likely to seek out help from white professors, fearing conscious or unconscious bias or that the professor will be less helpful than they are for white students? How often do faculty members call upon Black students to give the “Black perspective” on some issue covered in class? How many Black students are assumed to be student-athletes, automatically asked for their team schedule at the beginning of the semester?

I can tell you, as a professor of color, the other side is not without its challenges. I regularly teach on racism, among other systems of oppression, in my sociology courses. Given the risk (and reality) of being labeled “biased” by (white) students — a common criticism professors of color face, while white professors teaching on race are seen as “objective” and even an authority on the subject — I am sensitive to the racial and ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, of my classes. I must emotionally prepare for days when a discussion of racism will feel more like standing trial before a jury of 20 white young adults to defend my life as a Black person. It would be unfair to rely on the sprinkle of students of color to speak up, challenge the white majority in the class or even defend me when I am challenged.

Institutionalized Racial Justice

To borrow from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, we should regularly ask ourselves the following question: How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate and intentionally include people and communities of color?

For every decision that we make at the department, college or university level, or for our classes or student organizations, we should ask ourselves what, if anything, it does for Black lives (good or bad). We must stop relying on seemingly random, meritocratic, race-neutral and “colorblind” ideologies and practices to produce equal outcomes. To overcome white privilege and white supremacy — which are always already at play (some of it even by design) — we must intentionally and systematically prioritize racial and ethnic minorities and communities of color.

A college or university’s strategic plan is a good place to center Black lives — not just with one obligatory statement about diversity and inclusion, but instead in every statement of our goals for the next decade. We can ask ourselves how we make sure that alumni and other donors’ contributions to campus, and the way that we honor them (e.g., named buildings, statues), do not simply reproduce white supremacy and Black invisibility. As we propose curricular changes and new programs, we must take a moment to intentionally assess how the changes impact people of color.

Colleges and universities can also do much more to celebrate Black life that exists on (and around) the campus and to ensure that students of color feel valued, seen, heard, included — that they matter today, that their predecessors matter(ed), and that new cohorts of students of color will matter in the future. We need to do more to guarantee that Black staff members are not mere ghosts who clean our buildings, bodiless arms that serve us food at the dining hall or administrative assistants who simply greet us before we meet with some (white) person seen as having actual importance to our lives. We need to eradicate the sense of isolation, powerlessness, censorship and constraint that faculty of color regularly experience, particularly as we are overrepresented at lower levels (i.e., pretenure and recently tenured) and among contingent faculty. We need to better incorporate Black alumni into campus events and initiatives — especially those who felt excluded during their time at the institution.

To ensure that Black lives matter on your college campus, you must do more than bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades everyday life and operations. Many colleges and universities have had the audacity to envision Alicia Garza and other amazing antiracist activists at a campus podium. But, the day after the talk, do these institutions dare to start a campus movement for genuine racial justice? I hope so.

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.

Activism As A Form Of Scholarly Expertise

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.