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How To Support A Scholar Who Has Come Under Attack

Thank A Public Scholar

Academics, can we talk seriously about social media for a moment?  Like much of the rest of the world, we use various social media platforms.  Some of us use it strictly for personal reasons, some exclusively to share our scholarly work and perspective, and others for a mixture of these reasons.  I have witnessed enough attacks on scholars by conservatives, bigots, trolls, and even other academics to conclude that no one is shielded from backlash.  While our academic freedom is generally protected (though, that statement is debatable), we can no longer expect our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations to stand up for us when we come under attack.

The Times (And Attacks) Have Changed

The rules of engagement have changed.  We now live in a time when a 20-year-old college sophomore, who writes for a student newspaper to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges” (see bio at end), can spark a national conservative assault on a tenure-track professor at a different university over a few tweets critiquing racism.  (They believe, however, that they are somehow protecting innocent, uneducated laypeople from the evils of brainy, radical professors in the liberal ivory tower.)

Make her a thing

Indeed, this conservative student reporter did make Dr. Zandria F. Robinson “a thing” — both in the sense of a trend of attacking her, her appearance, her politics, her identity, and her research, and by making her an object of a larger, calculated conservative attack on critical and public scholars.  With a mere tweet to the president of University of Memphis, this student reporter influenced an internal investigation on Dr. Robinson. Though unsuccessful with the first assault, the site along with another conservative college student site launched a second attack that caught the attention of national conservative media.

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In essence, conservatives found success in launching a national assault on the scholarship and character of Dr. Saida Grundy, and were using the formula a second time on Dr. Robinson.  They got their first taste of blood in not only dragging Dr. Grundy’s name and reputation through the mud, but also in influencing her university’s president to issue a statement essentially calling her a racist for critiquing racism.  U Memphis never formally sanctioned or criticized Dr. Robinson, but their vague tweet disclosing her departure from the university is suspect — perhaps a passive way of quieting the conservatives who demanded her termination.  (Fortunately, Dr. Robison had the last word.)

Memphis Tweet

I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Robinson’s new academic home, Rhodes College, issued a statement to the press that not only sung her praises but affirmed her expertise and scholarship.

Dr. Robinson was hired for a faculty position in the Rhodes Anthropology & Sociology Department that calls for expertise in particular areas, specifically gender studies and social movements. Her expertise in these areas, her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience, made her an attractive candidate for the position…Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.

For once, this wasn’t a passive commitment to tolerate a controversial scholar’s academic freedom; this was a proactive statement to say, “she knows what she’s talking about, so please take several seats.”

But, I worry Rhodes may be an outlier here.  And, I am not entirely optimistic Rhodes would defend every scholar who comes under attack.  Though I have been informally supported at my own institution, I’m not confident that I would be defended if donors threatened to withhold their financial support if I weren’t fired.  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an expert on academic institutions, penned an excellent essay that substantiates my doubt:

What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.  In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters… Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.

Simply put, academia is behind the times.  And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities.  Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced.  What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics.  Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield argued this in an insightful essay, Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria F. Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone”:

As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.

And:

Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.

In this context, besides the real professional risks, we are also largely on our own to weather trolls, harassment, rape threats, death threats, and hate mail.  And, that goes for those who are relatively uncensored and those who think they maintain their public presence the “right” way.  Indeed, you don’t even have to engage the public outside of your classroom to find yourself under attack.

But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks.  Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars.  Academia continues to change around us.  We can no longer bury our heads in the sand, telling ourselves our only goal is to “publish or perish.”  There may not be a decent job left within which we can publish on the topics of our own interests and passions.

Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack

I have come across a fair amount of advice for targets of online (and off-line) harassment, and even offered my own.  See Dr. Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin.” And, Joshunda Sanders’s, “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama.” Also, see the science about online trolls [video], and a cute musical response to trolls [video].

But, I have not seen any advice for others to support scholars who come under attack.  So, with what little experience I have, I’m proposing my own approach.  In my proposed strategy, I draw from bystander intervention work, primarily used to prevent sexual violence and support victims of such violence.  In the recent past, I created a report for a local rape crisis center/domestic violence shelter on existing bystander intervention curricula [PDF].  I wrote about bystander intervention for sexual violence when I blogged for the Kinsey Institute.  And, I have written about using bystander intervention to fight racism and support victims of racism — a blog post that has been used as a major theme for an anti-racist group in Tennessee.  I hesitate to claim expertise here, but I have referenced or heavily used the bystander intervention model enough to feel comfortable using it here.

Briefly, the bystander intervention model calls for others who are present for some problem or emergency situation to intervene in some way.  The language of “bystanders” comes from the concept of the bystander effect, wherein witnesses to some crisis are less and less likely to intervene with more and more witnesses present.  If you are the only bystander present, you are quite likely to help if possible; if you are one of one hundred people, the odds are extremely slim that you’ll do anything besides mind your business.  Bystander intervention explicitly counters this tendency, instead demanding that bystanders intervene in whatever way possible.  And, for social problems like sexual violence and racism, this approach conceptualizes of the problem as a community’s responsibility.  To eliminate sexual violence, we are all responsible for fighting rape culture: challenging sexist jokes and comments; challenging victim-blaming; teaching and practicing sexual consent; intervening when we see sexual violence occurring; demanding justice for victims of sexual violence; and, so forth.

I want to apply bystander intervention, then, to supporting scholars who are targeted by bigots, trolls, conservatives, and hostile colleagues.  First, we must conceptualize such attacks as a larger problem, one which affects all of us in some way, and which we are all responsible for addressing. A culmination of factors — the absence of academic freedom policies that reflect the existence and scholars’ use of social media, the decline of labor rights and protections in academia, ongoing conservative attacks on higher education (even tenure) — have produced an increasingly easy route to target and then take down public and critical scholars.  And, these forces exist within the larger intersections of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, thus making marginalized scholars the most vulnerable to attack and the subsequent inaction of academic institutions and organizations.

As a social problem (at least among academics), it is thus our responsibility as a broad academic community to counter these attacks and support the victims of these attacks.  This community responsibility exists at multiple levels, ranging from small acts to large policy changes.

Source: Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence – a global public health problem. In: E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, & R. Lozano (Eds.), World Report on Violence and Health (pp. 3-21). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Source: Dahlberg, Linda, and Etienne Krug. 2002. ” Violence – A Global Public Health Problem.”  Pp. 3-21 in World Report on Violence and Health, edited by E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, and R. Lozano. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

A Bystander Intervention Approach To Support Attacked Scholars

We could adapt the above social-ecological model to fit academia, which should include the following levels: individual; department; university; discipline; and, the profession.  Below, I offer specific ways to support scholars who are attacked, drawing from my own experiences and suggestions offered by colleagues on Twitter and Facebook (including those who have been subjected to attacks themselves).  Please, offer additional suggestions in the comments section.

Individual-Level Strategies

  • Assume that the targeted scholar is already aware of the attack against them.  While well-intentioned, “hey did you see this awful thing about you!” can do more harm than good, potentially re-triggering their negative response to the attack.  I also recommend not tagging the targeted scholar on social media if and when you share links from the attack or stories about the attack.  Unlike social media platforms such as Twitter, we have a choice over who we connect with on Facebook; don’t threaten one’s safe space/chosen community by bringing in the external attacks.
  • Offer to take over keeping up with what is written about the targeted scholar so that they do not have to.  Only inform them of positive responses and anything else that seems important; don’t let them know about the negative responses.
  • Make an informed decision about whether to point out the attack to others.  On the one hand, raising awareness and calling others to arms is useful to prevent a situation in which the attacked scholars is on her own to defend and support herself.  We certainly can stand to be more aware of these attacks, to whom they are happening, and why they occur.  But, on the other hand, you might empower the attackers more by giving their attack more attention and readership.  In some cases, simply not feeding a troll could be effective in containing the situation.
  • If you decide to raise awareness about an attack, be mindful that some colleagues (especially department colleagues and administrators at the targeted scholar’s institution) may be prompted to act in a way that harms the targeted scholar.  You don’t want to be responsible for initiating professional consequences against the targeted scholar in your effort to support them.
  • If you see that a colleague has come under attack, simply ask what they need and extend an offer of support.  At a minimum, this is a reminder to the attacked scholar that they are not alone.  I can say, from personal experience, sitting alone with only nasty and bigoted comments from strangers can feel very isolating; if the attacks are persistent, one might even begin to question whether their attackers’ claims are true.
  • Say something more helpful or useful than “you must be doing something right!”  Weathering an attack is already psychologically taxing enough; asking the targeted scholar to trick their mind into seeing the attacks and threats as a compliment isn’t helpful in the moment.  It’s hard to appreciate the supposed badge of honor that is digging deep into your skin and drawing blood.
  • Don’t say “just ignore it” or “just turn off the computer.”  We live in an age where our online interactions are a real part of our lives.  It’s not as simple as pretending the attack doesn’t exist when you turn the computer off.  And, the professional consequences are real.
  • Counter the attack with supportive notes and messages.  Express your appreciation of the scholars’ efforts and their bravery for being a public voice.  Start a campaign to encourage other friends and colleagues to send the targeted scholar kind notes and thanks.  Or, take a moment to thank them using the #ThankAPublicScholar hashtag on Twitter.
  • If you have been subjected to an attack in the past, reach out to an attacked scholar to let them know you have gone through it and that they are not alone.  Offer advice for the best ways to weather the attack.
  • Defend the attacked scholar.  This can be as small as reporting offensive content from their attackers on social media or as big as writing your own blog post or op-ed to affirm the targeted scholar.  Take screen shots of offensive comments as evidence.  Fight the attackers’ ignorance with research if they get the targeted scholars’ words/scholarship twisted.  If you can stomach it, contribute to the comments section to say you agree with, or at least appreciate, the scholars’ writing.  (Note: These efforts may open you up to being attacked, too.  I’m still blocking trolls who are giving me grief on Twitter for defending Dr. Zandria F. Robinson.  And, there’s foolishness.)
  • If an attacked scholar is harmed professionally — whether as minor as public sanctioning or as severe as termination — hold the institution accountable for protecting academic freedom.  Start a petition.  Employ the advice and services of AAUP and other professional organizations.  Perhaps suggest that the targeted scholar seek legal counsel, and help them raise money if they cannot afford to.
  • Challenge colleagues’ comments that blame attacked scholars for their own attacks.  I have seen and heard scholars rationalize recent attacks, attributing blame to the targets because they used social media in a certain way, spoke/wrote in a certain tone, failed to give broader context and offer citations within the limits of a 140-character tweet, and so on.  “They knew the risks!”  I’ve even seen discussions that offer no sympathy for targets because they weren’t really engaging in public scholarship — just “popping off.”  These sentiments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage the public. Even scholars who write more extensive op-eds, explicitly backed by research, have come under attack.  As I argued in the previous section, these attacks reflect calculated assaults on higher education, liberalism, people of color, and women; and, we are all increasingly vulnerable as higher education becomes more corporatized and relies heavily on a poorly paid pool of adjunct laborers.  If we conclude that the only safe way to avoid being targeted is to stop engaging the public and delete our social media accounts, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that silence will protect us.  We do too little to make academia accessible, anyhow; we would only be making matters worse if we self-silence.

Department and University Level Strategies

  • If the targeted scholar is receiving death threats, threats of sexual violence, and/or hate mail, contact campus (and perhaps local) police to investigate and offer a police escort.  You or the police should take over checking your colleagues’ mail and answering their phone.  Even if you don’t agree with their actions or comments, there is no excuse for leaving them vulnerable to physical, mental, or sexual violence.
  • When a colleague has come under attack, fight fire with fire — pressure your department and/or university to issue a public statement defending your colleague and affirming their expertise and valueDo not take Boston University’s approach, which suggested they tolerate Dr. Saida Grundy’s academic freedom, and also called her a racist and a bigot — in a statement that “denounces” her “racially charged tweets.”  It would have been better for BU to say nothing at all because it only fueled her attackers’ taste for blood.  DO take Rhodes College’s approach, which clarified Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s expertise, affirmed that her tweets and blog posts are backed by her expertise, and explicitly stated her value to the institution.
  • When people from outside of the university target a professor and demand their termination (or worse), do not readily accept their claims at face value.  Use your critical skills as a scholar to assess the significance, source, and validity of these claims.  I recommend being particularly suspicious of claims that a (minority) professor has somehow harmed a privileged group (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class and wealthy people).  Stand firm in the distinction between public statements backed by research, especially that are critical of the status quo and inequality, and proclamations based solely on personal opinion.  Remember that the public isn’t necessarily ready to hear what scholars have to say — and that’s no reason to panic.  (How often do we encounter our own students’ [and even colleagues’] discomfort when we challenge their worldviews?)
  • Demand that your university and, if relevant, your department, establish guidelines for academic freedom that reflect today’s forms of public scholarship and means of communicating with the public.  Drawn on existing AAUP materials on academic freedom and social media.  To be clear, I am suggesting that academic freedom policies include explicit protections for scholars’ use of social media, among other forms of engaging the public — not setting limits on what is considered “responsible” social media use like University of Kansas’s controversial policy.  The major problem with KU’s policy is a stipulation that social media use that “is contrary to the best interests of the employer” may be grounds for termination.  As universities have come more corporatized, it seems the quickest way to have a professor sanctioned or fired is to threaten the university’s bank account (i.e., donors’ financial contributions).  In this vein, think about who has the most means to donate to a university; people of color (among other marginalized groups) will never have the same level of power to pressure a university to sanction/fire a controversial white professor.  So, the power of the purse in academia will always loom larger for marginalized scholars.
  • Related to the point above, demand that the university institute a formal means of lodging complains of inappropriate or offensive use of social media or other engagements with the public.  (There is no reason why a university president should be taking requests from students, with a known agenda to target presumably liberal professors, to investigate one of their faculty — especially via Twitter.)  Just as any internal offense (such as sexual harassment, academic dishonesty) must be officially reported before any action is taken, external charges, if investigated and acted upon, should first be formally reported with proper evidence.
  • Pressure your university to employ lawyers who will aggressively fight on behalf of scholars’ academic freedom.  (Several academics have speculated that BU’s public statement about sanction of Dr. Grundy was written by cowardly lawyers who looked to protect the university, not her.)
  • Demand that your department and/or university value community service (not just academic service) and public scholarship.  Here, I explicitly mean that these efforts count in hiring, tenure, promotion, and pay raises.  When university administrators praise or even demand public service, hold them accountable for actually counting and rewarding these efforts — and matching these rewards with professional protections against any backlash.
  • Challenge the academic culture that demands that you “keep your head down” and “keep your mouth shut.”  Question the implicit assumption underlying this advice that scholars, particularly at the junior level, will be reckless and irresponsible with regard to department and university politics, and engaging with the public.  In light of the few rewards and great risks entailed in serving the community and engaging the public, these efforts should be rewarded, not punished or kept quiet.
  • If you work in a graduate department, advocate for explicitly discussing academic freedom and public scholarship with graduate students — perhaps make these discussions a regular part of a professional seminar, preparing future faculty programs, or some other form of mandatory professional socialization.  Also, discuss the changing nature of higher education: the decline of tenure-track positions, the increase in student debt, the decline in state funding, and the corporatization of universities.
  • Train your graduate students how to effectively and safely use social media and work with the media.
  • Rather than attempt to “beat the activist” out of your graduate students, recognize that activism or, at least a desire to make a difference, is what drives many people into graduate school and academia (especially those from marginalized backgrounds).  Find ways to harness this passion in your graduate students’ careers.

Discipline And Profession Level Strategies

  • Demand that your professional organizations, especially those to which you pay dues, actively defend scholars who come under attack.  This can entail issuing public statements and press releases in their defense, offering financial support and help finding new employment for those who are unexpectedly fired, and offering access to legal counsel if necessary.   (Sociologists, as far as I know, ASA only intervenes when scholars have been fired by their universities — and, even then, it may not be to defend them.  The rest of us are on our own.)
  • Create resources to support and build community among public scholars.
  • Host conferences on academic freedom, public scholarship, and intellectual activism, with at least some focus on the inherent risks of engaging the public.
  • Host conference workshops on using social media and working with the media.
  • Work to reverse the adjunctification of higher education.
  • Demand that your local and state politicians stop making efforts to undermine academic freedom (including tenure), and start making more efforts to protect it.

UPDATE [7-9-2015, 4:27pm EST]: I have been informed of two additional resources that are relevant to this post.  One is a map of threats to academic freedom and other barriers in academia in the US: “Scholars Under Attack.”  Another is a well-written essay by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity.”

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.

Sexual Violence: What I Have Learned (And Experienced?)

I am a believer of the notion that we are forever students.  From birth to death, we learn new things, revise things we already knew, and sometimes dispose of knowledge that is no longer true or useful.  So, I am comfortable in admitting that there is a particular aspect of sexuality — sexual violence — about which I am woefully ignorant, but constantly learning.  Even with a PhD, prior research on sexualities, and teaching and advocacy experience on sexual violence, I am no expert on the subject.

Personally Speaking

I conceive of myself as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence.  I have lost count of the number of friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers who have disclosed that they were raped, sexually assaulted, and/or sexually harassed.  With each disclosure, I do my best to affirm that:

  1. I believe them, in light of the norm of not believing survivors.
  2. the perpetrator’s actions were immoral, illegal, and inhumane, in light of the norm of victim-blaming.
  3. I am available to support survivors in whatever way possible.  For the most part, this means helping to direct them to the party who is qualified to deal with certain issues (e.g., law enforcement, healthcare, counseling).

But, this happens alongside regulating my own emotions, for I often feel the urge to release a cry of hurt, disappointment, and helplessness.  Foolishly, I feel as though I have let survivors down, as though I could have single-handedly prevented the sexual violence they faced.  I suppose it is sympathy gone a little too far.

All of that is to say that I am not a survivor of sexual violence.  I have not been the victim of repeated sexual harassment, nor an instance of sexual assault or rape.  But, I am tempted to put my intellectual energy to work to find those instances where, on a small scale, I was or could have been victimized:

The fellow camper who peeped over the bathroom stall wall to watch me pee.  The fourth-grade classmate who, upon staying the night, unbuttoned my shorts and fondled me while I pretended to be sleeping — after we consensually experimented with our new-found sexualities.  The numerous times friends or strangers have visually ogled, or even fondled, my chest in disbelief that men can have breasts.  The numerous times a fellow gay bar patron has grabbed either my butt or genitals or both.  The first boyfriend, 24 to my 18 years of age, who (unsuccessfully) attempted to have condomless sex with me on his friends’ living room floor.  The other sexual partners who (unsuccessfully) pressured me to have sex without a condom.  Or, the guy who successfully did penetrate me without a condom after I stated very clearly that penetration was off-limits.  The fellow academic summer program participant who pressured me to drink more at the bar, even after I clearly declined, (I presume) to get me drunk enough to have sex.  The friend and colleague who felt me up in front of my faculty adviser at an academic conference on sexualities.

Now having written that list of experiences, I feel a bit queasy.  But, I still refrain from labeling myself as a victim or survivor of sexual violence.  I worry doing so trivializes the experiences of people, particularly women and children, who have actually been raped or sexually assaulted.  Maybe I hold too limited of a concepualization of sexual violence, erasing men’s experiences, erasing same-sex sexual violence, or allow any degree of my own interest in the other person involved deny the non-consensual aspects.  Maybe I fear what follows thinking of myself as a victim of sexual violence.

For now, I am sticking by my initial point: I do not want to trivialize others’ experiences by thinking of my own as comparable.  That “sympathy gone a little to far” when I hear of others’ experiences has never felt like empathy, nor the triggered emotional reaction of someone who has faced sexual violence themselves.  I do not know, however, what to do with the queasiness I just felt in reflecting on my experiences, however I may classify them.  And, in the midst of telling my partner about this post, I stopped midway to run upstairs trying to fight back the tears.  I felt like a fraud as he hugged and comforted me.

Academically Speaking

At the time of writing this post, I have just watched The Invisible War and prepare for my upcoming lecture on sexual violence in my gender and sexualities course.  Though I stand by the importance of teaching about sexual violence, I feel a fair amount of anxiety about what to teach and how to teach.  I am hesitant as a cis man, and as a non-survivor.  Who I am to teach on a subject that overwhelmingly affects ciswomen and trans* people?  How could I do the subject justice, not teaching it too abstractly as a matter for academic pontification nor so personally that it may be triggering for survivors in the classroom?  Most importantly, how do I navigate what students say, from the disclosing of survivors’ stories to other students’ victim-blaming?

The most important lesson I convey is that we must think of sexual violence as a systemic problem that can only properly be addressed at the societal and community levels.  Social institutions like colleges and the military are often complicit in, and even promote, sexual violence.  It is dangerous to maintain an individualistic focus, wherein an otherwise good guy goes too far but will never assault or harass anyone again.  It is dangerous to assume all instances of sexual assault and harassment are properly reported and pursued to bring justice to victims.

I also advance a perspective on sexual violence that reflects my intellectual emphasis on intersections among systems of oppression.  Too often, we think of a young heterosexual cisgender man without disabilities who rapes or harasses a young heterosexual cisgender woman without disabilities of his same race/ethnicity.  We think of sexual violence as purely a manifestation of sexism and misogyny.  That erases the ways in which sexual violence occurs as expressions of racism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, classism, xenophobia, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, and xenophobia.  And, indirectly, it reinforces the underlying assumption that sexual violence is about sexual desire, rather than power.  It erases the way these systems of oppression intersect in and as sexual violence, for example, the history and contemporary practice of white men who rape and sexually harass women of color.

Concluding Thoughts

Well, I will admit that this post did not unfold as I had initially planned — probably unsurprisingly around my personal reflection.  I suppose it is fair to say that my understanding of sexual violence, personally and academically, is an evolving matter.  I am certain I will continue to write about it as it unfolds.  Maybe others will find this useful; maybe I am not as full of shit as I feel right now.

Think Like A Drag Queen

RuPaul

This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice

Want To Be Successful? Just Publish, “Dude”!

A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research.  In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time.  Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect.  Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.

So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”

Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It

Um, hello?  “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).

“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].

If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men.  This is for two reasons.  First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing.  An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man.  This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster!  pick up your feet and run!”  So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.

Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take.  Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression.  “Don’t do that — that’s girly!”  “Man up.”  “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.”  Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.”  I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.”  So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.”  Then, you will really be successful.

The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out

Is that a read?

And, another thing!  This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819).  That is 182 biologists around the world.  Yes, that is a small sample.

Let me dig in a little more.  These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818).  Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university.  So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status).  Tenure status was not considered.  The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.

Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818).  Order of authorship was ignored.  Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored.  Other journals were ignored.

To Be Fair

Let me stop there.  My intention is not to trash the authors’ work.  They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses.  What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets.  In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample.  Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:

It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.

By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.

The take-home message: publish early, publish often.

To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research.  However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.

A Personal Rant

The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic.  That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities.  The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place.  This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].

This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs.  Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter.  I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people.  The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline.  Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men.  Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position.  But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.

But, I did start publishing “early.”  I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth.  Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years.  That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.

What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place.  Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students.  One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program.  That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.

If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues.  But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places.  For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia.  Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.

Take-Away Point

The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].

Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring.  Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background.  This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable).  And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality.  For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market.  (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)

But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together.  Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings.  We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms.  It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors.  And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.