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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.

Advice For Black Graduate Students On “Playing The Game”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intellectual Violence In Academia

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

For over a year now, I have been seeing a therapist to work through the trauma that was my graduate training. I have a knack for discussing personal troubles publicly, so I have been writing about the recovery process over the past year, as well. I figure, since the structure and culture of the academy is complicit in the trauma, why should I continue to suffer silently? Others like me (Black, queer, non-binary, fat, activist) and not like me have probably been traumatized, too.

Since going public about my story – grad school as “little T” trauma (not as bad as “big T” traumas like rape, child abuse, or war) – I have been privy to other marginalized academics’ trauma narratives. Most of these folks have not said a word, but their reactions to my story say a great deal. I have become more adept at recognizing trauma in other academics: retelling the same painful stories of oppression and injustice over and over; consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from others – “please believe how awful this was”; continuing to give power to those who traumatized them, at least as “air time” in their thoughts, nightmares, and stories. I recognize it because I was doing it and still do at times, albeit to a lesser extent with the help of therapy.

As others have actually named their own trauma and shared those stories with me, I have not only found confirmation that 1) I am not alone in being traumatized by my graduate school experiences and 2) the forces that lead to trauma for marginalized students and scholars is likely far worse than I imagined. Academe and its graduate education is not merely out of touch with the needs of the world beyond the ivory tower. It is not simply a matter of academics having their heads up their butts while job security remains a luxury for the few and exploitative labor conditions in academe have become the new normal for PhDs.

There is a longstanding, widespread phenomenon that I fear too few of us recognize, and even fewer of us are willing to name: intellectual violence. In the name of job prospects, tenurability, professional status, grant funding options, journal homes, citation rates, impact factors, and so forth, many (privileged) academics promote the erasure, stereotyping, disempowerment, objectification, exotification, and silencing of oppressed communities. The status quo of the larger racist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and fatphobic society is upheld by the academy; worse, academe maintains a reputation for social justice, diversity and inclusion, and critical investigation of the status quo.

I suspect many academics are aware of the ways in which science has been used to advance oppressive causes. We must credit early white men scientists, many of whom were obsessed with creating a taxonomy of humans especially on the basis of race and sexuality, for their influence in oppressive ideologies and policies. (But, let’s not be too optimistic in thinking scientific racism or scientific homophobia are historical artifacts. Think Jason Richwine and Mark Regnerus, among others.)

But, far fewer academics seem to be openly acknowledging the ways in which academic research and teaching (unintentionally) enact violence against oppressed communities through academic norms and values. Where money and resources go says a great deal about an institution’s priorities. So, we can infer from the relatively small number of gender and/or women’s studies, racial and/or ethnic studies, Black and African American studies, Latinx studies, LGBT and queer studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous studies, and disability studies programs that these areas of academic study, curricula, and, arguably, communities of study, are unimportant in the academy. Where these programs exist, they are underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed.

Most insulting is making marginalized scholars complicit in this violence by making their own job security and professional success dependent upon it. Though naïve about the academy as I graduated college and headed to grad school, I was at least aware that a PhD in sociology would open far greater doors than one in gender or sexuality studies. But, I had no idea that trading off the joy I felt in my gender and sexuality studies courses in college for job prospects in academe was the first of a series of compromises and concessions. I regularly conformed, repeatedly passing up opportunities to pursue gender and sexuality studies for a more mainstream path. This explains why my most recent work falls in the realm of medical sociology, despite being recognized as a sexuality researcher on all counts but my actual training.

On some level, perhaps mostly unconscious, six years of training that implied to me that queer and trans people, women, people of color – and especially people at the intersections of these identities – are unimportant led me to agree with the devaluing of research and teaching on and advocacy with oppressed communities. It led me to agree that these communities themselves hold little value relative to cis hetero middle-class white America. No one held a gun to my head to force me to make the decisions that I made. However, I actually think the intellectual nature of this kind of violence was actually far more damaging than physical violence would ever be. The intentional resocialization of grad school changed how I view the world, how I think of myself as a scholar and an activist, and altered how I relate to my own communities.

Like many victims of oppression, I have also internalized the voice that leads me to doubt the severity of my own marginalization. As I write this, I want to concede that I am being a bit dramatic by using the word violence to describe my training, that I am insulting real victims of trauma (“big T” trauma). But, I keep coming back to the word violence when I think about what I have had to do to recover. On the health front, I have been spending a great deal of time and money on acupuncture, massages, fitness training, and therapy, plus taking a yoga class and Lexapro for the anxiety, to deal with the psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms of the trauma. I have given up a decent chuck of my research leave trying to get healthy – all the while feeling guilty for prioritizing self-care and resentful that privileged colleagues on leave can churn out books because there is little to no trauma from which to recover.

Professionally, I have had to unlearn much of my graduate training in order to heal, to move forward with my research trajectory, to sustain myself, and to feel that my work is aligned with my values as an activist. I have to relearn how to love my communities and myself, and to trust that my gut and spirit are leading me in the right direction, even if that means straying from mainstream academic norms. I will never be free if I let institutional and professional norms define me as a person, if I take my value and worth as a person and scholar from any institution.

Defining what it means to be a scholar on my own terms is scary because I lack role models, and I lack a path-well-taken that assures me that I am headed in the right direction. And, such self-definition is not without its risks. But, for the sake of my health, longevity, and well-being, I can no longer be complicit in the intellectual violence against my communities and me. I will never be free by appeasing institutions that are set on maintaining the status quo.

Grad School Professors as Gatekeepers… And Then Some

Photo Source: Lynn Friedman

Photo Source: Lynn Friedman

The best piece of advice I received as a grad student was to think of my graduate school professors and advisors as nothing more than gatekeepers. These were people who had been given power by my department, university, and the profession to train me and award me with a PhD. On the surface, it is well known that I, as the student, had to demonstrate sufficient competency in order to advance: master’s thesis, graduate minor, qualifying exam, proposal defense, and then dissertation defense. And, I did so, hence the three letters behind my name since July 2013. They made the boxes that I successfully checked in a six-year period.

Such a utilitarian approach doesn’t sound so bad. Graduate school was simply a means to an end. All I needed to do was appease my grad school advisors’ conditions for advancing toward the PhD — nothing more, nothing less.

But, graduate training tends to be much more complex than that. The dropout rate would not be 50 percent, mental illness would not run so rampant, and there would probably be a lot fewer folks stuck in lifelong ABD purgatory. But, the utilitarian model, while helpful, has the unintended consequence of serving to blame those very students who do not advance in their training.

Admittedly, I can only speak from my own perspective as a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist. So, I need to narrow my concerns to the experiences of marginalized graduate students, perhaps especially my fellow unicorns at the lovely, yet sometimes dreadful, intersections of more than one oppressed status. The utilitarian model — “just play the game” — is naively simplistic when one’s training exists in the context of cissexist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, and xenophobic oppression. We do not start at the same (privileged) starting point, we are not given the same quality training and resources to excel, our take on the game is seen as inferior, and we are less likely to enjoy the spoils of successfully winning the game.

Ironically, I actually intended to write this essay to promote the aforementioned utilitarian approach. But, as I reflect on how I played the game — but still feel as though I did not win in some important ways — I have grown wary of that advice.

First, I should highlight that the actual game of succeeding in graduate school demanded so much more than checking the boxes that my grad school advisors demanded. There seemed to be an infinite number of implied and sometimes explicitly stated expectations that were either 1) required to actually earn the PhD, 2) highly recommended in order to get a (tenure-track) job (at a Research I university), or 3) deemed central to what it means to be a (mainstream) sociologist. I cannot say that it was ever entirely clear which end a particular means achieved. Was the explicit effort to steer me away from gender and sexuality studies — the areas I expressed interest in in my grad school application — actually a matter of getting the PhD? Probably not. Was the explicit effort to “beat the activist” out of me a formal part of PhD training? Doubtful.

This lack of clarity about the motivations behind particular aspects of my graduate training proved to be more troublesome than a problem of uncertainty. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it allowed for my graduate advisors to use their superordinate status to push me into a certain direction professionally. I hope most professors could not be described as manipulative, but I have heard stories that echo my own experiences. I had to concern myself with my status in the department, as greater visibility and status as a student meant more opportunities to advance my training. The students on the periphery of the program were tale-tell signs of what could happen if I ignored too many of the informal and implied expectations.

A second, related concern is the strong seductive power of being in the “in” crowd. I was drawn to the game-playing approach, especially as it became a matter of survival. I did what I had to do to get the degree, but also pursued other things (usually secretly) that fed my spirit. But, I saw that others, usually privileged students, were invited into relationships with professors in ways that were not impersonal exchanges. Some were invited to babysit, catsit, and housesit for professors — I never was. Some remain lifelong friends and/or collaborators with their former advisors; some honor their former advisors by making them their children’s godparents. Across the board, many at least stay in touch with their advisors, occasionally leaning on them for professional advice (and sometimes personal support), drawing on their networks, and writing recommendation letters.

I (mostly) played the game, and what did I get? Strained professional and personal ties with my grad school advisors, generalized anxiety disorder, and an unhealthy dose of complex trauma to work through still years later from the awful experience of grad school. No, I do not actually want those kinds of relationships with my advisors; it seems unethical to ask students (who would fear saying no) to watch your children, pets, or house. But, that kind of intimacy was partially denied to me and resisted as a matter of my own survival.

Source: RuPaul's Drag Race Untucked

Source: RuPaul’s Drag Race Untucked

I would be lying if I said I did not want some kind of personal relationship with my grad school advisors. These were people I saw on a weekly, if not daily basis, who were invested in my training and success, who observed the highs and lows of the roller coaster known as grad school. I never wanted to treat grad school as a game, for I never knew education to be a cold business transaction.

Perhaps that is where my naiveté shows. My professors — trained sociologists — were not my friends, or therapists, or confidants, and — as I learned the hard way — they were not to be collaborators or colleagues of equal status. A power-imbalanced relationship, in which my advancement and career depended upon them, is inherently fraught. My vulnerable position in these student-professor relationships was heightened by the inequality in our social locations — them white, cisgender, middle-class, (mostly) heterosexual, and me Black, genderqueer, a broke grad student, and queer. I was perhaps too open about suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and about being an activist (which they saw as a professional liability).

The funny thing is, as I became more jaded, distant, guarded, and utilitarian as a means of survival, one advisor criticized me for holding back and for not seeming to trust them. Despite having my anxiety dismissed and their efforts to beat the activist out of me, I was expected to still bare my soul to them — the very soul they intended to crush, or at least co-opt.

I suspect that the privileged way of relating to others in the academy is to be unquestioningly open and trusting of one’s peers and superordinates; indeed, grad school was not the last time I was accused of not trusting a (white) colleague. But, for marginalized folks, that kind of openness and trust can open us up for others’ critique, judgment, dismissal, or other violence. Yet, you get dismissed as uppity, guarded, mean, cold, or standoffish if you don’t open up for privileged colleagues’ entertainment/inspection/surveillance. A double-standard for marginalized scholars and students about ways of interacting with (privileged) others in the academy, which, in the end, actually has nothing to do with the quality of our research or teaching.

Frankly, I never found one good strategy to excel in grad school.  Just being good at what I do wasn’t enough because what I really wanted to do — study the intersection of race and sexuality — was dismissed.  And, being “likeable” wasn’t enough or, to be really real, even possible for the long-term.  I fumbled my way through grad school, achieving what I now see as inevitable: I would earn that damn PhD and never look back.  I just wish I was in a position to advise future PhDs how to do so without the scars I endured in the process.

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

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.