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Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger
At last week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in Seattle, WA, two women of color graduate students separately disclosed to me that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed at the conference. Beyond courageously sharing their experiences with me, they do not feel brave or protected enough to report their experiences to the ASA. For, their vulnerable positions in the profession (graduate students) and in society (young women of color) present the very real concern of professional or personal backlash if they were to report the sexual violence. We live in a rape culture that denies the prevalence and impact of sexual violence; that does not believe victims, but rather blames them for their own victimization; that celebrates predators and excuses their violation of others’ bodies and space. ASA and the discipline of sociology exist within that culture. Why should we expect different results from them?
The perpetrators of the sexual violence in both instances are senior men faculty members – but, from different institutions. As such, the responsibility to pursue these cases – were they to be reported – falls outside of a particular institution. These incidents occurred at an ASA meeting, and thus are the organization’s responsibility to pursue. As one of the two women pointed out to me, had she reported the assault to local police, she would be offered no support by local police at the next ASA conference as the location changes every year.
I took to social media to ask my fellow sociologists what resources existed to prevent sexual violence at ASA meetings and to support survivors of violence at future meetings. Few colleagues responded, all to say they wanted to know the answer, too. I did receive a response from ASA’s twitter account (@ASAnews) to look to page 2 of this year’s annual meeting program guide:
Ethical Conduct during the Annual Meeting:
It is unethical in any professional setting, including the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, for sociologists to use inequalities of power which characterize many professional relationships to obtain personal, sexual, economic or professional advantages.
Sexual, sexual identity or racial/ethnic harassment is also unethical behavior under the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics.
Attendees are encouraged to immediately report instances of harassment during the Annual Meeting to the ASA Executive Officer at Hillsman@asanet.org or through the ASA Annual Meeting Office.
I should note that I never read the front matter of the annual meeting program guide, and I imagine few other attendees do. It is a thick book! I only use it to find out when and where my sessions are. Some attendees exclusively use the phone app, which won’t force them to flip through the front matter. More importantly, it seems naive to assume that the above statement would stop a predator from assaulting or harassing others at the conference. (Sexual violence is already illegal, yet the law doesn’t seem to stop it from occurring at alarming rates.)
I responded, pressing ASA about what is actually done to prevent sexual violence at these meetings, and to support survivors of sexual violence that has occurred at past meetings. I was informed that the Committee on Professional Ethics deals with reported instances of sexual violence on a case-by-case basis.
I felt underwhelmed by this response. When I returned home, I sent an email to the Sociologists for Women and Society (SWS) listserv to ask what feminist sociologists knew of existing resources and strategies for preventing sexual violence at academic conferences. I also contacted the ASA Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology and the ASA Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology to ask that they take on this issue.
I had not anticipated Sally Hillsman, Executive Officer of ASA, to catch wind of my emails; she chimed in on the SWS listserv to emphasize that victims of sexual violence could confidentially report these events to her, and that this approach to handling such reports was voted on by ASA members. I pressed still to highlight the enormous fear that victims experience that prevents most of them to report sexual violence, and that these reporting mechanisms still do not address my concerns about sexual violence prevention and supporting survivors. Sally responded again to offer the following:
For the women who experienced sexual harassment at the Seattle, Chicago or recent meetings:
Please call me WITHOUT REVEALING YOUR NAME IF YOU CHOOSE at my office. I will return to my office this Wednesday August 31 to discuss your experience ANONYMOUSLY. If I am away from my desk, leave a message when you will call again and I will be there.
202-383-9005×316 goes right to my desk; no one else will pick up.
This is standard operating procedure. If you didn’t know about how ASA handles these situations it is good–insofar as confidentiality has been maintained–but bad that we have not been as available to sociologists as we could be.
The ASA has a Code of Ethics that everyone who is a member of the Association FORMALLY AGREED to abide by, and ASA has investigation and sanctioning ability within the scope of the Association. These include confidential (non-public) and public sanctions for those found by COPE to have violated the Code. Council is not involved.
I appreciate that ASA has allowed (which seems like a problematic verb here…) victims to report sexual violence without revealing their names. However, as others pointed out in the SWS discussion, eventually anonymity would become confidentiality, which eventually be disclosed to perpetrators if ASA pursued the reported case. This system does little to protect victims of sexual violence from being further victimized. And, given the horrendous reputation of other institutions, there is little reason for the discipline’s most vulnerable members to expect they won’t be victimized by ASA itself.
Rethinking Sexual Violence In Academia
I bring these events and conversations to the public stage not to criticize ASA, though I am clearly underwhelmed by its handling of sexual violence. Rather, I want to further contribute to the conversation about sexual violence in academia. There is fear that prevents many of us from talking about it, reporting it, criticizing it. Hell, even some sexual violence prevention activists have been censured or worse by academic institutions. Indeed, they are complicit in the production of rape culture within the profession.
There are many points that I wish to make – others have already said this, but it bears repeating. Sexual violence is an expression of power. Academia is obsessed with power and hierarchies. The profession enables predators to prey upon vulnerable members with little recourse. Those same power-dynamics leave victims and witnesses with few options to seek justice and prevent future instances of sexual violence. Professional hierarchies are laid upon social hierarchies; it is no coincidence that women and people of color are overrepresented among contingent faculty who – perhaps – have the fewest resources and least amount of support to avoid being victimized.
Just as academic institutions facilitate sexual violence among undergraduate students, it does so among graduate students, staff, faculty, and administrators, as well. There exists a rape culture on many campuses, and within disciplines and professional organizations. Victims are either blamed for their own victimization or not believed. Predators go unpunished, and are often times rewarded; their behavior is excused because of their professional status (which is likely enhanced by the privileged statuses of whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, wealth, older age, etc.). I once sat in a conference meeting that seriously considered naming an award after an older white man professor from my graduate program who has a long, loooong history of sexually harassing women students and colleagues; with great trepidation, I spoke up to oppose such an honor, but I believe he will still be honored in some other way. Others in that meeting were hesitant to entertain “hearsay,” but conceded when I stressed that I was privy to more than mere gossip about him.
Sexual violence exists at the intersections among racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, classism, fatphobia, ableism, religious intolerance, ageism, and xenophobia. White heterosexual cisgender women are not the sole victims of sexual violence; sexual violence is not merely a “white woman’s issue” or a feminist issue (with the necessary critique of the white, cishet, and middle-class biases of each wave of feminism). We fail many, many victims of sexual violence when we rely on ways of addressing it that are typical among white middle-class women; for example, there are racial differences in even naming one’s experiences of sexual harassment as such, and in reporting these incidents. A focus on sexual violence against white cishet women (presumably by white cishet men) ignores the gross unwanted sexual attention I (a Black queer non-binary grad student at the time) received from two white gay cis men professors at a Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) conference years ago. Such a focus ignores nuances of sexual violence in queer spaces and in communities of color, to name a few – especially across racial, gender, and class lines within those spaces communities.
We need to take seriously the bystander intervention approach to prevent sexual violence in academia. That means it is not merely the responsibility of potential and actual victims of sexual assault and harassment to seek justice and support survivors. It is everyone’s responsibility. Yes, everyone. Sexual violence is a systemic issue. It is an expression of systems of oppression. It operates within the very social institutions each of us inhabits everyday. We must each challenge victim-blaming, rape-myths, and institutional practices that either ignore sexual violence or that even facilitate it. We must intentionally support all survivors of sexual violence, even those who do not come forward. Predators must be banned from our academic spaces so that they do not perpetrate violence again (because there is a good chance that they will).
I could go on. And, all of this is coming from someone with limited scholarly expertise on sexual violence and minimal personal experience with it. There is a great deal we can learn from the experts and survivors to actually prevent sexual violence in the academy. Right now, it is a crisis. In these first few weeks of the semester, countless undergraduate students are joining the statistics of victims of sexual violence; universities are continuing to be complicit in the predatory practices of perpetrators of such violence. And, graduate students, staff, and faculty are returning for another year – some to continue to be harassed as they suffer in silence. Who are we to offer guidance to the rest of society on ending sexual violence when hundreds of schools are currently under federal investigation for the mishandling of reported sexual assaults?
Further reading and resources:
- Sexual Assault Network for Grads (SANG)
- Faculty Against Rape (FAR)
- End Rape On Campus (EROC)
- “Contexts quicklit: 8 Agenda-setting articles on the sociology of rape” via Contexts magazine
- Dr. Sara Ahmed’s resignation following ongoing exposure to sexual harassment
- “Persistent Sexual Harassment Is a Primary Reason Women Leave STEM“ via Jezebel
- “#YesAllWomen: Violence against women on campus, and what we* can do about it” via Tenure, She Wrote
- “Title IX — A Step By Step Guide” via Tenure, She Wrote
- “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” via Tenure, She Wrote
- “10 Ways to Fight against Sexual Assault on Campus” via AAUW
- “6 Ways Faculty and Staff Can Fight Sexual Violence on Campus” via AAUW
- AAUP Resources and Statements on sexual violence
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s “Campus Sexual Violence Resource List“
- “4 (Intersectional!) Ways to Stop Campus Sexual Assault” via Ms magazine
- “EMERGING FEMINISMS, Faculty-Survivors and Campus Sexual Assault: A Conversation” via The Feminist Wire
- “Campus Rape Survivors Need Policy Change, Not Trigger Warnings” via The Feminist Wire
Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
Now 31 years old, I am still struggling to figure out my gender identity. I knew by age 5 that I was unlike other boys, even declaring to my mother that I should have been born a girl. I came out as bisexual as a senior in high school, then gay in my freshman year of college. With exposure to feminist and queer theories and activism in college, I found a more fitting identity — queer — to reflect my own sense of gender and attraction to masculinity broadly defined (no matter others’ bodies or sex).
But I have graduate school to thank for my stepping back into the closet, at least in terms of my gender identity and expression — and for nine years of wrestling with the tension between my queer gender identity and the masculinist norms and expectations of academe.
Sociology became a woman-dominated discipline — at least in terms of degrees awarded — before I ever became a sociology major in college. In 2012, women were close to half or more of the faculty in two-thirds of sociology graduate programs in America, representing huge growth over the previous decade. (I imagine this number is much lower for women sociologists at the associate and full professor levels. And gender equity may have stalled, or even reversed, with the overrepresentation of women among adjunct professors.) But in 2012, only 22 percent of graduate departments had more than one-quarter of their faculty specializing in the sociology of gender — and the same number making a genuine commitment to women scholars and the sociological study of gender.
In my own graduate training, I found even some of the faculty members who specialized in gender did not encourage research in this area. The discouragement seemed strongest for those planning to use qualitative methods (too “touchy-feely”), feminist and queer lenses (too “activisty”), and feminist or gender studies approaches (too interdisciplinary). Despite commendable representation of (cis)women in my department and the discipline more generally, I learned that many (men) sociologists appear to hate women and see masculinity as central to good scholarship.
In reading A. W. Strouse’s essay criticizing the inherent heterosexism and queerphobia of American graduate education, I finally realized that I am not alone in struggling with the white heteromasculinist under- and overtones of my graduate training. As Strouse aptly points out, professional (re)socialization of graduate school is centrally a task of eliminating passion, love, creativity and originality from would-be scholars’ lives — or at least presenting ourselves as detached, subdued, conforming — that is, “professional.”
In our writing, we were discouraged from “flowery,” verbose and creative prose, instead getting to the point concisely and speaking with unwavering authority. In fact, it is best to avoid writing in the first person at all costs so as to present arguments as taken-for-granted truths, rather than offered by an individual scholar. There is a reason why the feminist scholarly practice of being transparent about one’s social location never caught on in mainstream sociology; seemingly objective research is the highest form of inquiry, and everything else is suspect.
Masculinist authority was equally valued in how one presents one’s research in workshops, talks and conferences. As one grad school professor warned me, “none of this ‘shy guy’ stuff” — scholarly presentations were not actually spaces to present incomplete projects or uncertainty. (And don’t even think about attempting to shirk male privilege by rejecting an authoritative tone and presence!) Whatever it means to be a “shy guy” was seen as distracting at best, or antithetical to my scholarship at worse. I could not help but assume that this professor’s comment was a more polite way of telling me to “man up.” And, upon comparing notes with a cis gay man in the program, I learned that the professor had, indeed, a reputation for telling queer men students to “man up.” Perhaps I had been pegged as too sensitive for the harsher, more offensive version of this advice.
I have wrestled, more generally, with the demand to strip away all emotion. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have criticized me for becoming increasingly more angry as I present at conferences, that my own rage about oppression and the detriment it has on the health of oppressed individuals is inappropriate for an academic setting. I learned to stop pounding my fist on the podium, but I have not quite mastered the stiff upper lip. Showing emotion is weak; a true scholar would never be so personally invested in the plight of marginalized communities.
To my surprise, the devaluation of femininity is not limited to the erasure of feminine expressions in academics who were assigned male at birth. I have witnessed the policing of femininity in cisgender women academics, even those who are femme presenting.
For example, two weeks in a row in my Preparing Future Faculty course, the cis woman professor chastised cis women students for their “feminine” and “girly” behavior. I agree that beginning a presentation or conversation by apologizing in advance for subpar quality or ideas only serves to undermine what one has to say. But I found it quite troubling that a woman professor so openly, publicly and forcefully berated these women students for their feminine presentation of self, especially in a mixed-gender class. Perhaps a private conversation, wherein the professor could talk more at length about her concerns about the sexist ways in which women scholars are received in the academy, would have been better and less offensive. But, then again, this is the same professor who interrupted my own presentation to ask, “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?” Clearly, academic training is about beating graduate students into submission and conformity.
I have heard women friends and colleagues note the related practice of rewarding masculinity in women in academe. Short hairstyles and masculine attire appeared to be much more common among my grad department’s most successful women faculty. The more assertive you could be, the better. The more you could do to reject your femaleness and femininity, the more successful you could be in the academy. Women who insisted on having children should calculate pregnancy just right so that they could “pop one out” during a break in the school year. I am often shocked by how openly academics and academic institutions attempt to regulate women scholars’ reproductive choices and sex lives. Some women academics are complicit, unapologetically giving advice to “keep your legs closed,” delay motherhood as long as possible or forgo it all together.
It has taken me three years post-Ph.D. to recognize the role my graduate education has played in stalling my gender journey. I entered the program beginning to embrace a genderqueer identity and reject the restrictive category of “man.” In a different life, I might be well on my way to rocking stylish, colorful outfits, being as fab as I want to be, or at least much more comfortable in my unique skin. But, in this life, I have to first recover from the damage of my graduate training to my sense of self.
I have only recently reclaimed a genderqueer identity, now finding “nonbinary” to better describe who I am as a gendered being. I have slowly dropped the suit and tie as a protective shield and begun to slowly come out publicly as kind of, sort of trans. Another path to my own liberation sadly entails rejecting the femmephobia, queerphobia and transphobia of the academy. Embracing an authentic gender identity and expression entails reconceptualizing what it means to be a scholar. (Why are the two intertwined in the first place!)
No advice to offer to others just yet — my apologies for that. But I hope that more of us will acknowledge, critique and resist the ways in which academe polices the gender presentation of scholars.
Note: this was originally published on Feminist Reflections blog.
About a month ago, I found myself embarrassed to sit as the sole faculty member at a table of new members of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) – that is, aside from Dr. Mary Bernstein, outgoing SWS president, who led the new member orientation. I was excited to attend my first SWS winter meeting (really, first of anything hosted by SWS), but also embarrassed that I was new already half way to tenure and still “new.” No disrespect meant to the graduate students in that room, but I felt as though I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. And, when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt as though I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Eric Grollman, and this is my first SWS meeting.” “Hi Eric,” my fellow newbies didn’t actually say, but I could hear in my imaginative and anxious mind.
No Support To Attend SWS Meetings
I went through all six years of graduate school, and then two years in my current position, without ever attending an SWS function. Some years I was a dues-paying member, and some years not. I justified the distance from SWS by identifying as more of a health scholar, and secondly a sexualities scholar – that gender was only tangentially related to my research. It took an encouraging email from SWS Executive Officer, Dr. Joey Sprague, to finally get serious about becoming involved in SWS. Recently, my work as an intellectual activist – particularly on my blog, Conditionally Accepted – has focused on protecting fellow intellectual activists from public backlash and professional harm. As many of those who have been attacked are women of color, it was clear that my efforts were in line with SWS’s mission and many of its initiatives. You-should-get-involved became you-should-attend-the-winter-meeting, which became you-should-organize-a-session-on-this-topic. This was quite a break from what feels like eagerly awaiting opportunities for leadership in other academic organizations!
I’ve studied sexuality and gender, as well as their intersections with race, since I officially declared my major in sociology and minor in gender studies in college. And, I’ve been an activist of sorts since kindergarten, focusing heavily on LGBTQ and gender issues beginning in college. Why did it take me so long to get involved with SWS – a feminist sociologist organization?
Elizabeth Salisbury, Drs. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Ilsa Lottes, Fred Pincus, Michelle Scott, Carole McCann, and Susan McCully, among others. These aren’t names that are known nationwide (not yet, at least), but they are forever a part of my life. These are professors who were fundamental in the raising of my feminist consciousness, and in feeding my budding activist spirit. They introduced me to Black feminist theory (among other theoretical perspectives), feminist and queer critiques of the media, womanist accounts of herstory, and social justice-oriented research methods. Clearly, I still feel nostalgia for those days of self-exploration, advocacy, and community-building.
Graduate school, unfortunately, was a hard right-turn from my undergraduate training. I chose to pursue a PhD in sociology, assuming it would be easier to get into the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, or even student affairs with that degree than the other way around. I won’t waste my energy on regretting the decision, but I recognize that it was the first of many compromises I would make to advance my career. Dreams of a joint PhD with gender studies were dashed due to “advice” that I would not be employable. I was discouraged from my fallback plan of a graduate minor in gender studies or sexuality studies because, I was told, one can “read a book” to learn everything there is to know about gender. By the time I selected the topic for my qualifying exam, I knew to select the more mainstream area of social psychology rather than the more desirable areas of sexualities, gender, or race/class/gender/sexualities. Still, I was reminded again that my interests in gender, sexualities, and race were not “marketable” when I proposed a dissertation on trans health. I was mostly obedient as a student. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friends’ surprise that I had been offered a tenure-track position in sociology with a focus on gender and health. I entered grad school open to interdisciplinary study on queer, feminist, and anti-racist issues, utilizing qualitative methods, and tying my research to my advocacy; I left a mainstream quantitative medical sociologist who viewed writing blog posts as a “radical” forms of advocacy.
Would it surprise you that I wasn’t encouraged to attend an SWS meeting in graduate school? Those who were actually involved in SWS did so on their own volition. We were otherwise expected and encouraged to attend the mainstream organization – the American Sociological Association – and perhaps the regional sociology conference as a starting point to “nationals.” It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t the norm; and, on the limited funds of a graduate student, I had to be pragmatic about which conferences I attended. ASA won out all through grad school and beyond.
Finally Finding My Feminist Sociology Community
So, back to my first SWS winter meeting. It was amazing, of course. I felt like an academic celebrity, having many people – some whom I knew, many whom I did not – express their appreciation for my blog, Conditionally Accepted. Admittedly, with such visibility as an intellectual activist, there is a lingering twinge of the mentality I was forced to adopt in grad school: “what about my research?” I thought privately. Obviously, these colleagues care about my research, as well. But, I found that the meeting, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, was just as much about research as it was about feminism, activism, and building a community. At what other conference would I feel torn between attending a session on feminist public sociology (hosted by the fine folks at Feminist Reflections) and another on campus anti-racist activism? Certainly not the conferences I’ve been attending over the years.
In hindsight, I realize how easy the meeting was emotionally, socially, and professionally. I saw an occasional glance at my nametag, but never followed by averted eyes. I sensed genuine curiosity in meeting others, not the elitist-driven networking to which I’ve grown accustomed at academic conferences. There was even a banquet, featuring a silent auction, a dance party, and delicious food, on the final night of the meeting. Feminist sociologists know how to party after a busy day of talking research and advocacy!
Needless to say, SWS meetings will be one of the regulars on my yearly conference circuit. I am left wondering how different my career and life would be thus far had I attended SWS from the start. Would I have had an easier time finding support for my research and advocacy knowing that I would at least have a network of social justice-minded colleagues in SWS? Would I be in some sort of leadership position within SWS by now? I even saw half a dozen current grad students from my graduate program at the meeting. What do they know that I didn’t?
I can’t speak to paths I did not take, and why others do what they do (or don’t do). I made the decision to focus on becoming involved in mainstream sociology spaces to increase my visibility, widen my professional networks, and enhance my job prospects. SWS did not seem like a feasible opportunity for me because it was not seen as a central in my graduate program. I suffered to a great extent in attempting to navigate the powerful mainstream expectations of my graduate training and my own goals to make a difference in the world. I don’t know that I could have handled being marginal anymore than I already was as a Black queer intellectual activist who studies race, sexualities, and gender.
Find Your Own Feminist Academic Community
What I take from life’s lessons is that one can really benefit from looking just a little bit further to find what one needs. My program devalued research on my communities – Black and LGBTQ. But, had I attended just one SWS conference, I would have found that there exists an academic space where that work is valued without question. My program sought to “beat the activist” out of me; but, in SWS, I would have found regular, open discussions about feminism, activism, and social justice. I know now that if I cannot find support for my goals, my identities, my politics in my immediate context, I am certain I can find support elsewhere. And, if not, there are likely a few others who are willing to join together to build a community that would offer such support. “If you build it, they will come,” or something along those lines. So, no matter how alone we might feel in a specific program, department, university, field, organization, etc., we have to remember that the universe is vast – there is someone or some group out there in which we can find home.
I don’t want to end by beating myself up, though. I’ve done too much of that in trying to make sense of the traumatic experience of grad school. Rather, I want to end by encouraging those who are in supportive networks to reach out to fellow colleagues and students who you know will benefit from access to such networks. I want to encourage those with power, money, and other resources to share them with someone who may not be able to afford attending a conference that might be transformative for them – but their department won’t support or encourage. I encourage faculty to emphasize to their students how amazing SWS is, or at least having other options besides ASA. Departments and universities can also consider setting aside money and resources to help students attend SWS, the Association of Black Sociologists, Humanist Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, regional sociology meetings, and those outside of sociology (e.g., National Women’s Studies Association). We do not advance our field by reproducing mainstream and traditional work; we do it by taking risks and thinking outside of the box. We do not benefit from young, aspiring feminist sociologists trudging through their careers thinking that their feminist politics are at odds with success in sociology, nor having them drop out of their programs or leave sociology for more supportive fields. We benefit from supporting the creativity and bravery of the next generation of scholars.
So, I hope to see you at the next SWS meeting. I’ll be the one attendee with the big grin on my face – well, at least one of the many.
In late July, right before my one-month hiatus from blogging and social media, I attended an overnight retreat for faculty and staff of color at Spelman College, and co-hosted by the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS): “How Good It Is to Center Down: A Courage and Renewal Retreat for Faculty of Color.” Seventeen other people — mostly women of color (especially Black women) faculty — and I participated in a contemplative retreat to “pause, reflect, and renew—and prepare for the 2015-2016 academic year.”
My only complaint is that the less-than-48-hour-long retreat was much too short; but, I am confident that the retreat simply planted the seeds I needed to continue to grow as a scholar.
Invitations And Introductions
We kicked off the retreat with a delicious meal and light conversation. The energy in the room reflected our excitement to get started, meet other faculty of color at liberal arts colleges in the South, and be away, albeit briefly, from our usual routine. After lunch, Dr. Veta Goler and Dr. Sherry Watt, serving as co-facilitators and -organizers, welcomed us and explained the structure of the retreat. For activities and discussions involving the full group, we were seated in a circle, with a small table with flowers and some information in the center. Rather than pressuring us to “share or die,” the co-facilitators invited us to participate and to “speak into the circle.” This set a tone that felt safe, that one could simply listen if necessary or speak if desired.
We were invited to introduce ourselves, including our names and institutions, what we hoped to gain from the retreat, and anything we needed to set aside to be fully present at the retreat. (I appreciated the recognition that we are human, and thus are carrying a lot with us into any given event — pain, excitement, emotional baggage, dread, illness, joy, etc.) Only a few attendees had introduced themselves by the time the first person had become emotional. Just acknowledging that the space invited us to practice self-care, and reflection, and be in community moved some of us to tears; we had permission to actually care for ourselves and be whole human beings. No one shared specifics, but there seemed to be a universal allusion to pain and trauma from repeated experiences of microaggressions, harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence. I was particularly struck by hearing Black faculty who work at HBCUs — even Black women who work at Spelman — say, “this was a toxic year.” Apparently, none of us are safe from racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression in academia. And, without regular reflection, self-care, and access to community, we don’t even realize how much pain we carry around with us on a daily basis.
Meditation, Mindfulness, and Reflection
Unlike typical academic gatherings (e.g., conferences, department and faculty meetings, classes), the retreat was nontraditional and unconventional in its emphasis on meditation, mindfulness, and reflection. There were a few moments of meditation, quiet reflection, private journaling, as well as walking and talking to reflect with a fellow attendee. I’d say the most enjoyable of these activities was walking through Spelman’s labyrinth (see below).
Some activities were introduced by the group reading of a poem related to the activity. Attendees took turns volunteering to read part of the poem; then, we were all invited to speak into the circle certain lines that resonated with us. It felt as though we were invited to savor the phrase that left our lips. We moved beyond merely reading the poem to actually feeling and, eventually, experiencing the poem. For example, we participated in an activity called “Where I’m From,” wherein we wrote a poem about our upbringing and home. We started this activity by group-reading (and savoring) George Ella Lyon’s poem — “Where I’m From.” The imagery of his poem — “I am from fudge and eyeglasses // From Imogene and Alafair. // I’m from know-it-alls // Ad the pass-it-ons… — helped to put me into the reflective and creative mindset to write my own poem.
I admit that some of the more creative activities, including drawing, painting, and making a collage, initially felt silly to me. As a quantitative sociologist, I deal with numbers and statistical models. But, as I actually started to participate, I felt a part of my brain (and my heart and soul) opened up to reveal things otherwise unacknowledged by me.
In one activity that emphasized self-care, we were invited to reflect on, and then draw, the “work before the work”; that is, what did we need to do to prepare for work, to be fully present at work, to enjoy our work. This is somewhat akin to the practice of free-writing, wherein you start a writing session by reflecting on your personal connection to the topic; the personal (at least in my field) tend to be stripped away from traditional academic writing, so this practice can help to ease the process. But, the “work before the work” can be much broader. Through this reflective practice, I realized that I needed to feel that my academic career was connected to my social justice values and advocacy (see below). I cannot feel whole if I must leave my Black queer activist self at home while I go to work in a suit and tie. The task that lies ahead of me now is to find ways to do so.
In the collage activity, we were invited to visualize what self-care looks like. In my interpretation of the task, I chose images of freedom, authenticity, and uniqueness (see below). Once finished, we were invited to share our collage with another attendee, who was invited to ask questions that help us dig deeper into self-discovery. With my partner, I realized that all of the images I selected were of women — women who look strong, brave, and free. For the most part, the reverence I hold for femininities is unsurprising to me, particularly as a genderqueer-identified man. But, that these images were reflected at the exclusion of pictures of men and masculinities did surprise me. I suspect the affinity I feel for strong, brave women is that they are defiant in being themselves, while, for men, strength and bravery are demanded, expected, and rewarded. At any rate, what initially felt childish proved to be quite insightful. In no way were we asked to enjoy every part of the retreat, or promised that every activity would prove useful to us.
In a third activity, two other attendees were invited to paint a reflection of your “birthright gifts” — the positive things that you offer to the world. We began this exercise by reflecting on the five people we would invite as our guests to a dinner party. I selected Oprah, Ghandi, Audre Lorde, Martin Luther King Jr., my late cousin Danny, and my late grandfather Sylvan. The first four represent significant activists and difference-makers who are important to me; the latter two are relatives who lived life meaningfully, who didn’t waste a day on negativity or to adversity. As I shared my dinner guest list, two other attendees painted surprisingly similar pictures: a utopian world either protected or created by me as I overcome oppression, violence, and hate. I’m sure I’d probably offer a more humble version of this description of myself. But, it is quite affirming to see what you value reflected in how others see you. And, more importantly, that others see you as valuable, and see the gifts that you offer to the world.
On Day 2 — a short, but no less impactful day — we were introduced to Parker J. Palmer’s concept of the “third way” from his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life:
[W]e learn a “third way” to respond to the violence of the world, so called because it gives us an alternative to the ancient animal instinct of “fight or flight.” To fight is to meet violence with violence, generating more of the same; to flee is to yield to violence, putting private sanctuary ahead of the common good.” The third way is the way of nonviolence by which I mean a commitment to act in every situation in ways that honor the soul (p. 170).
Nonviolence — the third way — involves asking honest, open questions, inviting others to share their stories, and encouraging truth-telling in organizations. But, Palmer warns that this third way is no easy task — as to be expected for choosing an alternative when society presents us with only two appropriate actions.
He goes on:
So people who wish to serve as agents of nonviolent change need at least four resources in order to survive and persist: a sound rationale for what they intend to do, a sensible strategy for doing it, a continuing community of support, and inner ground on which to stand (p. 171).
I have yet to read the full book, so I lack more context for his proposal. But, the possibility of a third way of living and, specifically, of trying to make the world a better place, struck a chord with me, particularly the notion of acting “in every situation in ways that honor the soul.” Thus far, my career has felt limited to two options: fight or flight. Conform or retreat. Do well by mainstream or traditional standards or reject everything. Palmer’s proposal — but, more importantly, reading his proposal among other scholars of color seeking a better way of living — felt like the now-obvious alternative approach. It allowed me to give myself permission to prioritize authenticity, and to recognize the ways I have already been authentic in my career. This career will be so much easier when I remember that there is always a third way.
Veta and Sherry, our co-facilitators, noted that most of the retreat was based on the practice of “courage work” — the writings of and workshops led by Parker J. Palmer. Feeling energized by the retreat, I decided to pick up a copy of one of Dr. Palmer’s books. To my surprise, I had already purchased a copy of The Courage to Teach without knowing anything about the book, its impact, or the perspective and politics of Palmer. I decided to take it on my August vacation/blogcation, hopefully continuing the work I started at the retreat, and mentally and emotionally preparing me for the new academic year.
When I sat down to read the first chapter of Courage, I felt something within me that suggested this book would be transformative for me. One chapter in, I was both hooked and felt Palmer spoke to the demons I’ve been wrestling with for years. His first chapter is on identity and integrity in teaching.
By identity I mean an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self: my genetic makeup, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done to others and to my self, the experience of love and suffering — and much, much more… By integrity I mean an whatever wholeness I am able to find within that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my life. Integrity requires that I discern what is integral to my selfhood, what fits and what does not — and that I choose life-giving ways of relating to the forces that converge within me.
Palmer argues that a good teacher must be whole, that dividing one’s self into personal and academic will ultimately lead to frustration, burnout, and resentment. He takes a strong stance against the “objective” approach to teaching and, instead, teaching from the heart; this is a healthier approach for teachers, and proves more enjoyable for students. In general, he calls for a more communal approach to learning, as well for teaching.
His anecdotes of “divided selves” and “dismembered” teachers read like a future eulogy for me at the rate I have been going in my career thus far. As I was taught, I have practiced an “objective” approach to teaching, hiding behind facts just as much as I hide behind suits and ties. I have felt equally detached from my own research, which has demanded objectivity. In my heart, I have predicted that I would quit before I even went up for tenure if I continued to work as I have. To my credit, this has been more about fear than than valuing objectivity in teaching and research; nonetheless, I’ve lacked the courage to teach the way that my heart demands.
In the past year, I’ve become fed up with the dissatisfaction I’ve felt with doing things the way I was trained to in grad school. I’ve made my bed, and now I’m fortunate enough to lie in it. I’ve pursued a career that equally values teaching and research, and an institution that celebrates my intellectual activism rather than asking I hide it or wait until who-knows-when. Through my own desperate search, I am finding that there are other, better ways of being a scholar. In fact, I now believe that there is no one way to be a successful scholar. And, more importantly, there are other ways to be professionally fulfilled besides “success” in a conventional sense. Others have already discovered this, perhaps after pulling themselves out of a professional rut, too. I need not reinvent the wheel, nor do I need to continue to suffer. I have the power and, now, resources to create a self-defined career — one of synergy among teaching, research, service, and advocacy, of authenticity, and of self-care and self-discovery.
Would my life have been easier if I had stayed true to my values from the start of grad school? I don’t even want to entertain that thought. With great clarity, I recall my decision making process. I pursued a degree that would open the most doors in academia; I earned it and it helped me to get my current position, so I need not feel a twinge of guilt or regret. I’m choosing, instead, to see the good that has come out of all of this — a tireless effort to envision a different way to be a scholar in the 21st century. To get there, I will continue to attend retreats like this one, devour all that Parker J. Palmer has written, and pursue other resources that promote authenticity and social justice in teaching. With time, I hope to offer these resources to future generations of scholars and scholar-activists.