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Academic Freedom Won’t Protect Us

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

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

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

Academic Freedom As Academic Tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Protecting Our Ideas And Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Freedom In The 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.

College

My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.

I Suffer From Tenure-Track Stress

I have heard the term before — tenure-track stress.  I have decided to recognize it as a real condition, one that encompasses a set of stressors associated with the tenure-track for junior faculty.  As a critical medical sociologist, I am hesitant to medicalize yet another social experience, recognizing that the illness and appropriate cure lie within the individual sufferer rather than society — or, in this case, academia.  But, like minority stress (i.e., prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization that threaten the well-being of minority groups), the qualifier — tenure-track  — explicitly denotes the external source of such stress.

As I understand the tenure-track, it represents a probationary period in which one is expected to establish themselves as a scholar (i.e., research, teaching, service — in that order…).  The carrot that dangles at the end of the stick is lifetime job security (or “lifetime” “job security,” with scare quotes, depending on your perspective).  Cut-throat, status-obsessed colleges and universities tend to take a “sink or swim” approach, others attempt to offer transparency and support to facilitate success on the tenure track, and, still others defy classification because they don’t have a clear approach to the tenure-track process.  Ironically, the demands to achieve tenure have steadily risen over time as such positions have become more rare (i.e., 75 percent of PhDs do not secure a tenure-track position after they graduate).

Origins Of Tenure-Track Stress

Recently, I discovered that the path to earning tenure (for me, as with most, a 6 year period [2013-2019]) has brought on a high level of stress that I have never experienced before.  In my six years of graduate school, I felt stressed about the dreaded academic job market and publishing to improve my odds on it; but, I never doubted that I would graduate.  Despite my success as a PhD student, even defying expectations, I regularly carry doubt and anxiety about earning tenure.  Though too infrequently, I sometimes stood up to professors, I let my voice be heard, but I never feared that I would be dismissed from the program.  Now, as a professor, I am relieved each day that I have not been fired.  Grad schools have a 50 percent completion rate, but around 80 percent of assistant professors earn tenure.  It is literally irrational, as indicated by these numbers, for me to fret about tenure while I assumed success in grad school.

What is unique about the tenure-track, then?  The two most obvious differences for me are the loss of readily accessible mentorship and peer support.  The training wheels have come off.  I am certainly welcome to email or call my dissertation committee members and friends from graduate school — but, only once in a while.  Even if they didn’t take issue with more frequent contact, my own self-doubt would gnaw at me if I felt that I needed help often.  My grad program did its job in getting me into a faculty position to carry on with the same success, but also continue to grow professionally.  Senior colleagues at my current institution are available for advice, but I cannot expect them to mentor me intensely; I would do myself a disservice to let those who will evaluate me for tenure suspect that I cannot handle the job on my own.

I also want to suggest that the expectations for tenure are growing and, yet, still ambiguous.  But, I would never conclude that the expectations to graduate (and subsequently get a job) were easy and transparent.  My grad department had few explicit milestones, wherein success in a broad sense was to be learned through independent research (i.e., dissertation, thesis, other projects).  In either context, when I ask 10 people what it takes to be successful, I receive 10 different answers (if not more).  So, I cannot say confidently that the tenure-track is more stressful because of unclear standards.

Of course, there are a great deal more expectations.  My advisors were not lying when they joked that graduate students have a lot of free time relative to faculty (at least in terms of work).  The teaching load increases (for many, if not most, of us), the service requests pile up, all while we must publish more and become more visible in our discipline and subfields.  Each day, I feel pulled between self-care (so that I do not burn myself out before I even file for tenure) and getting everything done (so that I won’t be asked to leave before tenure).  Oh, and sprinkle in trying to find ways to make a difference in the world!

There is also another, somewhat perverse source of tenure-track stress: you are expected to be stressed.  I don’t mean the process is so stressful that we have come to expect it; this is a given.  I mean that some colleagues have indicated that it is a part of my job to be stressed.  I have noticed that some tend to evaluate the worth of junior faculty, in part, based on how stressed they are.  Being “cool, calm, and collected” is seen as suspicious; such lucky bastards people must not be doing enough (including just worrying).  I have acknowledged that I sometimes play into this because a self-doubting, validation-needing junior professor (male privilege acknowledged, here) can win the sympathy and support of senior colleagues that a confident, self-assured (read: smug, arrogant, uppity) junior professor would not.  I am guilty of playing the role expected of me as a tenure-track professor.

Symptoms Of Tenure-Track Stress

Having experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder for almost 5 years now, I recognize that tenure-track stress shares symptoms with other forms of distress and mental illness.  (And, I recognize that my own case of tenure-track stress is exacerbated by my preexisting, actually-in-the-DSM mental illness.)  There’s constant worry, insomnia, neglecting self-care, and various physical symptoms (e.g., headache, depressed immune function, body aches).  But, I have found there are unusual symptoms that suggest tenure-track stress is its own beast.  I will sprink in some treatments and “cures” along the way, as well.

Constant Comparisons With Others

I began 2015 doing one thing that I said I would stop doing in 2014: comparing myself to others.  My laptop was already on since my partner and I watched the ball drop online on new year’s eve in New York city; otherwise, I try to stay off of the computer when I am at home as a drastic means of leaving work at work.  I stumbled across a fellow academic’s blog, seeing just how much money they had received through grants.  “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered.  Frustrated, I went to bed, only to spiral from envy about grants to anxiety about my slow-moving projects.  This was not the way I wanted to start the new year.

I have sometimes wondered, “we can do that?” — especially when I hear about friends’ and colleagues’ novel and unusual accomplishments.  Soon-to-be-Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom compiled some of her blog posts into a book.  We can do that?  Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own business.  We can do that — and before tenure?  A few friends have broken the “lavender ceiling” in sociology by publishing on sexualities in the discipline’s top journals.  We’re doing that now?  I am incredibly happy that my talented friends are beginning to share their smarts with the world in incredible ways.  But, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little green with envy.

Besides these comparisons to junior faculty and advanced grad students, I sometimes look at the CVs of established senior colleagues as though they were baseball trading cards.  And, while I admire their work for a nanosecond, I reliably fall into the trap of feeling inadequate.  “There’s no way I can accomplish all of that!” I say discouragingly to myself.  “There’s no way I can publish all of that,” I think as I look at the CVs of peers and senior colleagues at research-intensive universities.  It is illogical — yes, it simply defies logic — for me to compare myself at a liberal arts college, only 1.75 years into the tenure-track, to scholars nearing retirement, as well as those of any seniority at other institutions.  I have found some solace in remembering to use senior colleagues at my own institution as indicators of successful tenure cases.  But, even then, the comparisons elicit some anxiety.

I suspect the cure, at least for this symptom, is to recognize that I will never find a fair comparison, and to appreciate that there are many ways to be an academic.  It is unfair to compare my record to those of others because I do not know every detail of their personal and professional lives.  Some people are wildly successful in terms of publishing because they are supported by research assistants who are paid but not given authorship credit.  Some publish more slowly because their method requires a long, painstaking process of data coding and analysis.  Some people are “rockstars” but are miserable, some people have a few pubs but are content.  More importantly, I must remind myself that publishing is only one task; I also deeply value teaching, academic service, community service, and activism.

Self-Doubt And Selling Myself Short

I have come to recognize that these comparisons are a consequence of the desire to become an academic rockstar.  But, it has taken me a little while longer to recognize that I tend to unknowingly discount my own accomplishments, talents, and strengths in comparing myself to others.  On the tenure-track front, I’m not doing so bad for myself — two publications in print with another on the way, a dissertation award, one paper currently under review with a few more in the works for this year.  I am competent enough in my classes to receive generally positive course evaluations, with numerous students taking subsequent courses with me.  I served on my department’s job search last semester, and am becoming more involved with the university’s LGBTQ office.  And, despite warnings of my impending irrelevance by taking a liberal arts job, I have been invited to run or be appointed for various positions in my discipline.  I think it is safe to say I am doing alright for a 30-year-old.

Sure, I will toot my own horn once more.  This blog’s visibility has spread farther and more quickly than I could have ever imagined.  I was recently surprised to begin seeing other people share our posts in Facebook groups before I did.  A few people have referred to Conditionally Accepted as a resource.  Sure, the blog is not a book (yet?), or an organization/business (yet???), or a publication in some top journal (but, I’ve got other projects in mind).  But, not many people can say they have a platform outside of the classroom, outside of university meetings, and outside of academic journals to speak publicly about inequality in academia.  I deserve to give myself a little more credit for creating such a space, while still being successful at things that “count” for tenure and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

And, in general, I do not have a record of major failures in my professional life.  Sure, I stumbled at the beginning of college, and then again in graduate school.  I started college in a scholarship program that was not a good fit academically (and socially and politically); but, I was able to switch to an open scholarship and then thrived as a sociology major.  I started graduate school miserable, totally unprepared for the professional socialization process and naive about inequality in the academy.  But, I eventually secured a fellowship, which allowed me to graduate early with a great job lined up.  The tenure-track has not started with a stumble (knock on wood), which may mean that I’ll be even more successful without time lost on regrouping, reevaluating, naivete, etc.  I would say that I am pretty resilient, especially with the support of family, friends, and colleagues.  Doubting my success as a professor just doesn’t make sense, but I still struggle with self-doubt.

Impatience

A symptom related to discounting my success thus far is a self-imposed demand for immediate success.  I have been provided six years to establish myself before filing for tenure.  Yet, I have repeatedly told myself “if only I can get that ASR, then I can relax!”  That is, once I have achieved the gold standard of scholarship — in this case, publishing in the top journal in sociology, American Sociological Review — then there is little doubt that I have proven myself as a scholar.  Of course, I feel behind because I know of a few PhDs who already had ASRs before graduation, and have come across junior scholars with that gold star on their CVs.

What I tend to forget, besides the foolishness of comparing myself, is that scholars grow and progress at different speeds, along different paths.  I am keenly aware that those with ASRs before tenure, or even before graduation, are generally white, cis men, straight, and/or from middle-class families, and did not struggle during the first two years of graduate school.  They didn’t waste time and energy trying to navigate (and, sometimes, fight against) the professional socialization of graduate school.  And, most who I know aren’t attempting to publish on marginal scholarship (e.g., sexualities, trans studies, intersectionality).  An ASR for my relatively privileged colleagues is a professional success; for me, it will feel like a damn victory for every underdog in academia.

I have been reminded by other underdog colleagues that achieving that gold star is not only rare, but extremely rare early in one’s career.  For most who achieve an ASR or their own field’s equivalent, it took the culmination of year’s of work, building up to some discipline-moving idea.  It takes time to build up one’s reputation and for the resistance against one’s ideas to lessen.  It is silly to think that I would reach such great heights so early in my career.  I am confident that I will publish in ASR in the years to come, and the reward will be that much sweeter for having to work for it rather than getting it right away.

I should note that this symptom is almost exclusive to the domain of research.  I don’t find myself racing to start a new class, or to prepare lectures weeks in advance, or to get to a department meeting, and so forth.  I feel much more calm and content when I think of research, along with everything else, as just a part of my 8am-6pm job.  Slow and steady wins the race!

Self-Restraint And Waiting For Permission

While a pat on the head, and being told “easy tiger,” would assuage some of my impatience, I still acknowledge that I hold back on doing certain things that I would like to do.  As I said earlier, some neat things are simply outside of my purview — “wow, we can do that?”  It is as though I am waiting for permission (i.e., tenure) to begin living, to begin taking chances as a scholar, to begin being myself.  Frankly, I am too scared to do certain things that I worry will lead to a tenure denial or a tarnished/non-existent academic reputation in general.  I obsess daily about what to wear to work, fearing that anything short of a suit and tie is too casual but also hating the discomfort of professional attire designed for skinny white bodies.  I often feel on edge in my interactions with colleagues, administration, and students, worrying I might slip and reveal my true self.  Despite being vocal (but still restrained) online, I bite my tongue and downplay my radical activist self at work.  Who am I fooling?  (Myself.)

This self-restraint is fueled by fear, as well as relying on models of success who don’t look like me and don’t share my values and goals.  I do myself a huge disservice by thinking inside the box — what does it mean to be successful by mainstream academic standards?  Sure, I pushed back against the pressure to “go R1,” and I publicly declared my efforts to do tenure my way.  But, I would be lying if I said I didn’t cling to normative academic standards as markers for success.  I know, in being “conditionally accepted” in academia, I can be all of these identities or I can do radical work (including activism) — but, not both if I expect to be taken seriously in the mainstream of sociology.  I don’t see many outspoken fat multiracial queer feminist men in academia… or any, really, besides me.  So, why risk my position?  Would I rather keep my job or empower my communities?  Would I rather wear a noose tie or demand that my medical sociology class focus on transgender health?

Maybe there aren’t others who identically mirror my social location, values, and goals.  But, there are others who have been thinking outside of the box for years.  They haven’t been waiting for permission to speak, to critique, to exist.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently really paid attention to Sociologists for Women in Society — a professional organization that explicitly notes that it helps to “nurture feminist scholarship and make both the academy and the broader society a more just and feminist place.”  I’ve known of SWS all along, but never got more involved than paying membership dues.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year’s winter meeting, and my summer plans remain up in the air; but, I seriously considered attending once I saw that the organization genuinely lives up to this mission.  For years, I have only seriously been involved in the discipline’s major organization, American Sociological Association, because I have clung to the “mainstream.”  I have missed out on involvement in the Association for Black Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, among other critical and activist oriented organizations.

This symptom of tenure-track stress, the denial of my own authenticity, will slowly eat me alive if I leave it unchecked.  I risk finding myself either completely “souled out” (albeit tenured) or bitter and exhausted, perhaps having left academia all together.  I learned early in graduate school that feeding my soul was just as crucial to my survival as feeding my body.  I seem to have forgotten that lesson — or, the intense effort to de-radicalize my image while on the job market caused this amnesia.  I recognize now that my ticket to gracefully crossing the finish line to tenure is to be successful while being myself.  I made sure to accept a job offer at a place that promised to support me as me, so it’s about time I took the school up on it.

Closing Thoughts

I did my time in graduate school.  I emerged that traumatic chapter of my life alive, albeit bruised and battered from efforts to “beat the activist” out of me.  I am slow to trust others’ assessments of my success because I have been doubted and dismissed in the past.  But, I must overcome tenure-track stress once and for all.  To the extent that I can, I aim to enjoy the ride, appreciating the feedback and support I receive along the way.  I aim to do tenure my way so that I can mentor future junior colleagues with confidence, rather than advise them to to sell out, shut up, and stress out.  There is more than one way to be a successful academic, and one of them should never be “just be stressed 24/7.”

But, Do #BlackLivesMatter In Academia?

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I have publicly written about the (recent media attention to the) crisis of police violence against Black men and boys in the United States.  Why have I remained silent for months?  From August onward, different reasons have come to mind to explain (or justify?) my self-imposed silence:

  • I was a nervous wreck the days leading up to the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco, held just a few days after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  And, while at the conference, there was little discussion of Brown’s death — at least that I encountered.  It seemed, as a discipline and academic organization, sociologists were surprisingly silent about the murder and subsequent riots.  Fortunately, some sociologists were talking about Ferguson, and some were even making a plan to act as sociologists.  Still, our collective action pales in comparison to other discipline’s efforts.
  • My father is a white police officer.  I have struggled to reconcile what I know about the sometimes scary realities of his work life with the everyday lived realities of communities that have been anything but protected and served by police.  I have struggled to separate individual (white) police officers from widespread racist bias and violence in US law enforcement.
  • As protests spread across the US, and hostility toward a legacy of racist police violence reached a boiling point, I continued to remain silent and, admittedly, out of touch.  Teaching three classes, including one new course, while attempting to stay productive in my research, felt too overwhelming to sacrifice my precious personal time.  Maintaining work-life balance is hard enough without national crises.
  • As the body count increased, and the murders of Black men by police officers became remained legal and state-sanctioned, it became difficult to remain focused on my usual professional responsibilities.  How could I carry on teaching about the medical institution (in one class) and research methods (in two other classes) when my mind was clouded with a sense of total vulnerability as a Black gay man in a racist and homophobic society?  When white students challenged me about a few points they had lost on assignments, I thought, “you privileged asses don’t know — they’re killing us!  Fuck your 2 points.”

I excused my silence and, frankly, my self-imposed ignorance about the national crisis.  Anxiety about conference presentations.  Mixed boy problemsRaw pain.  I had reason after reason, excuse after excuse.  Eventually, I was forced to name the root issue: fear.  (Ah, and as the tears instantly began forming after typing those four letters, my suspicion is confirmed.)

Fear

I make a point of talking about current events and new published studies at the beginning of my classes — well, at least those that are undeniably related to the course, and usually only in my substantive courses (e.g., Medical Sociology, Gender and Sexuality).  In teaching Medical Sociology and Sociological Research Methods this semester, I never felt comfortable bringing up the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and … (too many).  These tragedies did not seem relevant to lectures on sexual health, or multivariate analysis, or the decline of medicine, or qualitative data analysis; so, I never brought them up.

I suspect, at some level, I feared that a student would even ask, “how is this related to our class?”  Or, that some would later criticize me on course evaluations for focusing too much on racism (when the course has nothing to do with it).  I have been challenged by students enough for this fear to feel at least somewhat rational.  And, as my own pain and outrage grew, I worried that I was not “removed” enough from the tragedies to have a “neutral” conversation with my students about them.  I knew well enough that the pain was too raw to risk having a (white) student demand to know, “why are we talking about that issue here?”

Eventually, I was presented an “excuse” to even utter the word Ferguson in my Medical Sociology class.  At my university, a forum was held to discuss the Grand Jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson and, by the time of the forum, that regarding the murder of Eric Garner, as well.  I mentioned the event to my class, strongly encouraging my students to attend, but made it clear that I did not want to have a discussion in class about it.

At the forum, I admitted my embarrassment for going almost the full semester without ever discussing the national crisis.  And, I pushed back on the few other staff and faculty who attended to stop implicitly asking why the students were so quiet on the issue and, instead, ask ourselves why we had not provided students the space and resources to discuss it and (if appropriate) to act.  I know I am not alone in failing to discuss these important, urgent events in my classes — not in being afraid to do so (as a pre-tenure young Black gay man) and not in feeling it was “irrelevant” to my courses.

Do #BlackLivesMatter In The Academy?

Do Black lives actually matter in academia?  No and no.  On the one hand, Black students, staff, and faculty are woefully underrepresented in higher education.  Nominal diversity aside, there are too many academic institutions that fail to fully include Black people, to offer equal resources and opportunities, to protect Black people from harm.  On the other hand, Black communities and their contributions to society and history are rarely presented as legitimate, primary areas of inquiry in higher education.  Sure, there are a few courses in the social sciences and humanities that focus on race and racism; but, too few schools even offer degrees in Black, racial and ethnic, or cultural studies (sadly, my own university doesn’t, either).  At many schools, students are simply not afforded academic spaces to frankly discuss race, racism, ethnicity, and xenophobia.

The absence of Black people in academic institutions and in academic curricula are compounded for Black scholars.  Some of us are accepted on the condition that our Blackness is downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased.  We run the risk of losing our jobs or being sued if we dare to discuss racism as a legitimate area of academic study.  We risk being dismissed as researchers for studying our own communities, our work mocked as “me-search” while our white colleagues’ research on their own communities is seen as legitimate, mainstream scholarship.  And, despite our credentials and prestigious position in institutions of higher learning, we would be naive to expect to be treated better than a common nigger once we leave our campus offices.

Since Black lives seem to matter little in academia, I should not be surprised by my own silence about the ongoing national crisis of police violence against Black communities.  The culture of academia fails to prioritize and celebrate Black lives.  So, I regularly feel as though I am defending my right to exist before a jury each time I teach about race and racism.  But, I am further exhausted by attempting to toe the line of neutrality, for fear of retaliation from racist- and even “post-racist”-minded students.  My mainstream academic training, which prioritized prestige (i.e., journal rank), theory, and method over activism, social justice, and marginalized communities, did not include critical race theory or much of anything that made race central, nor skills for discussing current events like Ferguson in my classes.  And, my current institution did not make explicit support for me if I decided to discuss the national crisis in my classes.  (As a matter of survival, I do not assume the absence of explicit hostility or opposition necessarily implies the presence of acceptance or support.) Academia, in general, is not designed in a way that would make such discussions obvious material for one’s courses, whether or not they are explicitly focused on racism.

Can you blame me for being afraid to speak?  Without appropriate training and support to speak up, I knew that doing so would be at my own risk.  And, the question is, do I risk my job by speaking up or do I risk my life by remaining silent?  Whether you sympathize with me, or pity me, or even think I am full of shit, I have blamed myself — and, still do somewhat.  I let pain, fear, and uncertainty prevent me from providing my students one of probably few possible spaces to speak about the national crisis. I contributed to reinforcing the message that race and racism are not worthwhile topics in the classroom, particularly if “race” or some similar term is not in the course’s title.

We Must Make #BlackLivesMatter In Academia

I suspect some may wonder why instructors should talk about Brown, Garner, Rice, and Brisbon in the classroom.  I respect others’ academic freedom and, thus, am hesitant to claim that others should or should not discuss this crisis with their students.  But, there are a few reasons that I think others should consider.

First, we should resist the temptation to see this as a recent, temporary, and isolated series of murders.  Police violence, particularly against Black and brown bodies, is not new, and certainly not limited to these four murders (nor to men of color).  I imagine that there is a sizable body of research on race, racism, and law enforcement that should appease educators who are skeptical to engage current events.  Second, by bringing these conversations into our classes, we may equip our students to be able to connect those events with their own lives and communities.  Perhaps we can further chip away at the myth of racial equality and meritocracy in higher education.  Third, we would be contributing to students’ awareness of events and phenomena outside of our classes, even outside of the ivory tower.

But, facilitating a discussion about Ferguson, for example, is radical.  It is radical to the extent that one is pushing back against the hegemonic academic culture of racelessness or “post-raciality” (which, in reality, is simply white supremacy).  So, doing so likely requires some amount of strategizing beyond, “hey, I should probably mention this really quickly in my class.”  Below I list some ideas, mainly from the efforts of others who were brave enough to act and speak up, as well as some that would, in hindsight, have helped me to feel empowered to speak up:

  • Before you talk about the murder of Michael Brown, talk with other instructors first (or at least friends or family), and do your homework about the facts and timeline.  One danger of talking about Ferguson for the first time in one’s classes is not having thought through one’s own perspective and emotions, and not being prepared to hear possible counterperspectives and inaccuracies that students may offer.  Talking with others at your institution first could help to glean the degree to which you are supported and, implicitly, to garner support in case things do not go well in your class discussion.  Speaking for myself, the regular sense of isolation in academia exacerbates my fear and self-doubt in front of the classroom; I imagine I would have felt more empowered if I had already spoken with colleagues about the events that unfolded in Ferguson.
  • But, do not assume that students are not paying attention; yet, do not assume that they have received accurate facts about the murders, either.
  • See what other academics have done.  Read everything on the #FergusonSyllabus.  And, everything that Sarah Kendzoir has written about Ferguson, MO.
  • Use peer-reviewed literature and books about racial violence in your classes.  But, also consider using readings that feature personal accounts and the voices of Black people, either in anthologies or even blog posts and news articles.  We must go beyond the recent murders that garnered national media and social media attention.
  • When discussing the crisis, make clear that it cannot be thought of in either exclusively academic or exclusively personal (i.e., non-academic) terms.  Our conversations should not become so focused on the aggregate patterns and problems that we forget about the particular victims of racist police violence; but, we also do students a disservice by discussing these individual murders as isolated events, or purely in terms of our emotions about them.  It is crucial to give social and historical context for these events to prevent our conversations from dissolving into simply interrogating victims’ and perpetrators’ backgrounds, biases, and emotional states.
  • Set an appropriate and safe tone in the classroom for any discussion.  Make sure that you feel prepared to address problematic, offensive, or triggering comments that may be made during class discussion.  Upon reflecting on your class’s dynamics, if it does not seem the conversation will be unproductive or unsafe, consider eliminating discussion to either simply lecture or allow students to privately reflect in writing.  Or, simply forgo any discussion at all if you do not feel it will go well or that you are not adequately prepared.
  • Besides classroom dialogue, consider other ways on and off campus, and on and offline, to act and speak up.  But, also prioritize self-care so that your professional livelihood is not jeopardized by the psychological toll of yet another racial crisis or scandal.
  • Help students to connect the the racist police violence that has recently captured media attention to their own lives, including racial disparities in policing and disciplinary actions in schools.  You can also draw on stories of racist police violence in your own city or state that have likely been overlooked by mainstream media (but, perhaps has been covered on social media).

Closing Thoughts

In some ways, I feel this post is “too little, too late.”  What does writing about my five months of silence add to conversations that have ensued since (and long before) the murder of Michael Brown?  At a minimum, I wish to name the professional, social, and emotional constraints I regularly face as an academic.  I am confident that I am not alone in feeling that my supposed academic freedom is undermined by racist academic norms and practices, isolation, lack of support, as well as the resultant fear and self-doubt.  To others who remain too afraid to speak up, you are not alone.

Ideally, I hope to also make clear how academia is complicit in the silence and ignorance that surrounds racist police violence, and racism in general, in the US.  We fail to provide our students with the critical lens necessary to connect what they learn in the classroom with what is featured (or ignored) by the media.  We fail to demonstrate the relevance of academic scholarship to the “real” world, and to take serious topics such as race and racism in the academy.  White students are not challenged to see their own racial privilege, and how their actions and inactions contribute to the perpetuation of racism.  Many Black students do not see themselves on campus or in their textbooks.  This is in the midst of academia’s role in perpetuating racial inequality, while producing a generation of “post-racials.”

Finally, this post serves to break my silence.  I have once again learned the hard way that my silence does not protect me.

Academia: Uncharted Territory

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

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

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

Uncharted Territory

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

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

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

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

Paving The Way

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

paving the way

paving the way

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

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

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