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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.
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:
- I believe them, in light of the norm of not believing survivors.
- the perpetrator’s actions were immoral, illegal, and inhumane, in light of the norm of victim-blaming.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
- “6 Strategies to Kick Imposter Syndrome to the Curb” via U.S. News and World Report – Money, Careers
- “Essay How New Faculty Members Can Deal Impostor Syndrome” via Inside Higher Ed
- “9 Tips for Dealing With Imposter Syndrome” via A Year of Living Academically
- “Banishing Impostor Syndrome” via gradhacker
“The Impostor Syndrome: Exposing and Overcoming It” (Standford)
- “Imposter Syndrome and Feeling Stupid” by Megan Fork
- “How I cured my imposter syndrome” via The Contemplative Mammoth
- “Back-to-School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips” via Crunk Feminist Collective
- “Too Much Self-Doubt? Try Thinking Like a Creator” via profhacker
- “No, You’re Not an Impostor” via Science magazine
- “Do you dismiss your accomplishments as ‘no big deal’?” via Dr. Valarie Young
- “Getting over imposter syndrome” via Escape the Ivory Tower
- Survival tips for women academics via Inside Higher Ed
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
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.
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.