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Find Your Own Pocket Of Protection In Academia

It is too easy to look back on stupid things I said, did, or thought in my youth.  But, at times, I can look into my past with pleasant surprise regarding a thought or action.  “Wow — how did I know what the heck I was talking about then?”  Since I started the countdown to finishing my PhD around this time last year, I have been reflecting a lot on my college years.  Maybe I am looking back to compare my experiences as a college student to what I imagine my students experience.  There is also a bit of nostalgia because — well — graduate school was just a different beast.  Related to that aside, I also find myself reflecting on the past because I actually knew things before grad school (despite the implicit messages I received)!

A Culture Of Opposition

One memory that, now, looking back surprises me is giving advice on navigating what I called a “culture of opposition” in academia.  As a graduating senior, having served as president of the student activities group that year, I was invited to give parting advice to incoming student leaders.  In planning events on campus, involvement in other organizations, and advocating for greater services for LGBT students on campus, I had amassed experience in working with students, staff, faculty, and administration.  Through my experiences, it seemed you could assume most people were either not interested or invested in your efforts, and a few even took an extra step to get in your way.  So, while attempting not to be a pessimist, I emphasized that one should not be naive about others’ willingness to support you.

A Pocket Of Opportunity

In the picture above, you can see the poster I created as a visual aid for my advice to incoming student leaders.  That is me on the right, going through my South Pole clothing phase.  The ominous mass on the outside is the aforementioned “culture of opposition.”  I recall seeing a shocked face on one staff member’s face when I misspoke, saying “culture of oppression.”  (I thought it was funny.)

On the inside of the circle, in the center, is what I referred to as a “pocket of opportunity.”  I made an attempt to draw a pants pocket that is releasing little hearts into the air.  For me, this pocket was student life.  The fellow students with whom I worked, but more so student affairs staff, offered a safe, encouraging space that provided what felt like limitless opportunities for me to pursue my passions.  They, along with a few faculty and administrators, supported me in my efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBT students.  Within an otherwise disinterested and, at times, oppositional culture on campus, I found this small pocket of protection, encouragement, and support.

Find Your Own Pocket

I am reemphasizing a (provocative) point I made before: we, as marginalized people, do ourselves a disservice by buying into the fairytale of academia as a safe, inclusive, and equal place.  Despite my wisdom about the “culture of opposition” as a graduating senior, I made the mistake of assuming the best about academia as I entered graduate school.  And, I embarrassed to admit I did so again as I started as a professor (albeit to a lesser extent).  There is no place that I can think of that will automatically be “home” for me, that will automatically be welcoming and encouraging for people like me.

In order to survive and thrive, we have to find our own pocket of protection/opportunity/support.  Unfortunately, I do not have advice beyond knowing that we have to search, for it is not a given for marginalized individuals.  I cannot say that I have readily known where to look, but it became clear that I had to look for allies, mentors, sponsors, and supportive communities.  This has meant broadening my search beyond my own cohort, department, university — and, outside of academia.

An Update On My 7-Year Experiment

As my tenure-track job officially started in August, I publicly declared that I refused to stop living a full, meaningful, fun, and healthy life just for the hope of job security in seven years.  Following Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life,” I decided to experiment with a worry-free pursuit of tenure — but, without waiting until I have secured tenure to speak about it publicly:

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.

I just finished my first semester last week.  So, how is it going thus far?  Well — I am alive, still employed, and have no desire to look for a new job or move to a new place or leave academia.  But, you know me — I have to reflect more extensively to paint an accurate picture.

Teaching

I taught two classes this semester: one brand new prep (research methods) and a semi-new prep (adding more gender to my sexual diversity prep for gender and sexualities).  Moving from one class, three years ago as a graduate student instructor, to two classes was a bit of an adjustment.  Methods seemed to be first thing in the morning, with prep, grading, emails, and students dropping by office hours throughout the rest of the week.  The course is not the most intellectually challenging, but demands a lot of work on the students’ part (and, as a result, on mine) to effectively teach methods.  At times, my once per week, night-time, semi-prepped gender and sexualities class felt like an afterthought.  With a class full of seniors, with few but big assignments, it did not require as much of my attention as the methods course.  In the spring, I will have one new prep — social inequalities — and will teach two sections of methods.  I am sure going from two to three courses will be another bumpy adjustment.

I am still trying to figure the students out intellectually, politically, and in terms of demographics.  Just as I feel I have the student body figured out, my suspicion is disproved or complicated.  The biggest adjustment is to how stretched thin many of the students appear — suffering from a second or third cold, sleep deprivation, and constant worry and anxiety.  On occasion, I have mistaken exhaustion for laziness.

I have received my students’ evaluations.  Overall, I get the impression I am “ok” in most of their eyes (especially in research methods), though some seemed to think very highly of me as an instructor.  So, I have wrapped up the semester feeling good about a generally successful “Round 1,” particularly for my methods course.  I struggled somewhat with this new prep, trying to find the right balance of tradition (i.e, how it was taught it in the past) and my own spin.  Eventually, I realized my appreciation of tradition was actually fear driven by “impostor syndrome.”  What do I know about teaching research methods?  Ironically, I dreaded teaching quantitative methods and statistics for much of the semester (the methods I use in my own research!)  What should I teach?  What aspects am I supposed to teach that I barely understand myself?  Impostor syndrome was turning into feeling genuinely unqualified for the job.  That was the absolute worse feeling in my career thus far.

To my pleasant surprise, these aspects of the course went swimmingly — well enough that my qualifications became undeniably clear to me.  I take from this a reminder to trust my gut (stop beginning with what others have done) and to proudly think outside of the box.  I was explicitly hired for my unique scholarly approach; I just have to remind myself of that on the not-so-perfect teaching days.

Research

I was warned that few professors actually make progress on their research in their first year on the tenure-track.  You are adjusting to so many things at once.  In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, the one thing that counts the most toward tenure (particularly at research universities) is the one thing with the least external accountability: research.  Teaching will take up every free minute if you let it.  Email and meetings take up the rest.  So, I went into this semester frightened but motivated.

For better and not-so-better, I sent out all three of the empirical chapters of my dissertation, and began extending a smaller review chapter, which I eventually sent out.  By the beginning of the semester, I already had one revise and resubmit (R&R) — a chapter about which my committee felt the most apprehensive in terms of publishing.  Soon after, I had a rejection for my strongest paper from my discipline’s top journal.  I quickly revised it and sent it to the top journal in my subfield.  That paper came back with a very promising R&R, which I turned to to get away from the other, daunting R&R.  Now, it is forthcoming at that journal, scheduled for its next issue!  The third paper was rejected, returned with pages and pages of nit-picky, soul-crushing feedback.  I sent the review paper to a journal outside of my discipline, only to have it handed back with no reviews.  One on-going co-authored paper has finally been sent out for attempt number three, and I hope to submit another soon.

So, here is the tally: 1) one rejection-turned-accepted (in print by March); 2) one daunting R&R, possibly turned co-authored to complement me where I am a bit lacking in expertise; 3) one painful rejection that I have not fully digested; 4) one quick and surprising desk-reject that I need to start from scratch empirically; 5) one co-authored paper under review; 6) one co-authored paper soon to be under review at a top journal.  My goal is to wrap up all of the projects that do not “count” as much toward tenure because they were not started at my current institution.  I hope to have evidence of progress on new projects by my mid-term review (in 2.5 years).

Yes, I sleep.  No, I am not neglecting my teaching.  No, I am not doing shoddy work, or aiming for “easy” journals.  What has helped is sitting my butt down each morning to write for at least 1 hour.  And, obviously, that is not enough to actually do the research, so I often left Thursday and part of Friday to run analyses and create tables.  Soon into the semester, I connected with four other junior faculty — from various disciplines — to create a bi-weekly writing group.  We talk through the challenges we face in our research — empirical, political, disciplinary, interpersonal, and emotional.  We are able to ask the tough questions that we are not as comfortable asking those who decide our fate (i.e., senior colleagues).  Sometimes, others say what you already know, but need someone else to validate you.

Realistically, the kind of productivity that seems feasible during the semester is editing existing papers.  I do not feel I have the time and energy to explore new data or literature.  I did run models — even redid one paper’s results section — but there were no stretches of hours of looking up literature to review.  I suspect the heavy initial lifting for projects will be limited to the summer and other long-ish breaks.  So, I am planning ahead to get moving, particularly on 1-2 new projects, over the summer so that I can shift to writing and revising during the fall and spring.

Service

Well, I am in a fortunate position, for service is not yet expected.  No advising, no committee work, and too new for independent studies and student research.  But, I hear it coming.  Advising starts, for certain, in the next fall semester.  And, I know my name is crossing colleagues’ minds for certain committees.  So, thus far, I have worked on expanding this blog, and attending committee meetings of my choice.  I talked a bit game in August about working with community groups.  But, then the semester started.  When I get home from work on weekdays, and wake up late on the weekends, the extent of the energy I have for service is blogging.  I am embarrassed to admit that.  But, this is one exhausted professor!

Politics

Oh, but do not think for a moment limited service means I am not stirring up some kind of trouble (in a good way!).  Politically speaking, my 7-year experiment has been, well, interesting and eventful.  I certainly made known that I refused to be a scared, silent, invisible, stressed out pre-tenure professor.  But, there were political landmines that I stepped on that I had not anticipated nor intentionally sought out.  I promise you — I did not actively seek out ways to “rock the boat,” though I did not make secret my long-term plan to make a difference on campus and beyond.

Well, there was the negative comment about me on a white supremacists’ blog site.  Then, the religious literature left in my apartment, probably by a maintenance or construction crew member who did not approve of same-gender relationships (i.e., my partner and me).  Then, another unnecessarily mean comment online questioning my credentials and political agenda.  Oh, and the threat to sue me over a blog post unless I edited it.  Sheesh.

For reasons that probably seem obvious to other academics — or, really anyone who has to navigate workplace politics, I did not publicly mention other landmines that went off.  Maybe I alluded to them — I cannot remember at this point.  One was challenging the message that an invited speaker’s talk seemed to send about marginalized groups, and later questioning the funding source.  Whoops!  I found out I was not alone in my concern, but I was the dummy who opened his mouth about it.  That blew over, but now some people’s first impression of me may be the uppity new junior professor.  (Funny, I was asked directly after the talk, “nothing?  you didn’t ask a single question!”  Nope — because you wanted me to.)

But, there have been positive outcomes, as well.  Sonya and I have gotten praise for starting and expanding this blog.  I have heard comments here and there with words like “inspiring.”  (Loving it!)  I have been credited by friends for encouraging them to be braver or more outspoken.  I have not been at my new institution long enough to be a part of big change, but I believe my arrival has been noticed by students, staff, and faculty.  I am brown where there are not a ton of faculty of color.  Queer where few are visibly and vocally out.  Young, outspoken, and accessible.  I suspect word will soon travel — hopefully in a positive way!

Health And Well-Being

But, how am I really doing?  I started off eager but nervous and still recovering from the self-esteem-crushing effect of graduate school.  I finish on a wonderful high note: a forthcoming article in the top journal in my subfield.  And, yes, I am taking on R&R with great intensity — that is, rest and relaxation for you scholars who are not as familiar with the acronym.  I feel a twinge of guilt for taking time off.  But, the guilt is far outweighed by the exhaustion I felt throughout the semester.  In order to stay productive, with now three classes (including one new prep), I cannot return for the spring semester anything short of recovered.

It was a doozy of a semester.  By the close of the first month, the social isolation took its toll.  A new pattern of weeping in my office either Wednesday or Thursday morning emerged.  And, the next day, I would return as my fierce drag queen alter ego Denise (in attitude only, not attire).  But, that stopped being enough.  Already exhausted and weary, I hit little bumps or stepped on landmines that felt like all-out assaults.  And, when a friend passed mid-semester, I was completely worn down.  That period, and the day of the shooting on my mother’s job, were nearly impossible to carry on with “business as usual.”  It has taken a great deal of discipline, resilience, and optimism to push through the exhaustion, disappointment, worry, heartache, and loneliness.

To be fair, I should be giving myself permission to just survive.  No one expects more of a new professor.  But, I expected to do more than survive, which, to be fair, I have!  I started out setting up meetings with colleagues in and outside of my department, my dean and associate dean, and associate provost.  My goal was to make a connection, ask for advice on adjusting and being productive, and share my five-year plan toward tenure.  The first couple of meetings were ok, but more time was spent on the “how to adjust” part than on the “let me show you my plan!” part.  Once the semester really kicked-in, these meetings dissolved into “will you be my friend?”  I resented appearing like the weepy and exhausted new professor — but that’s exactly who I was.  Who can talk about a five-year plan when weeping cut into the time you set aside for writing?  Fortunately, I have connected with supportive and understanding people around campus this way.

Looking Ahead

Semester One, done.  And, I would say I am in pretty good shape for the conclusion of my first semester and start of my second.  I go into Semester Two continuing to do what worked: take evenings and weekends off; do yoga in the morning; write at least 60 minutes first thing in the morning at work; keep meeting with my writing group; take regular lunch breaks; and, accept that the first year is primarily about adjusting surviving.  I return knowing to make more of an effort to connect with my colleagues (just being visible is not enough), and that there is no such thing as being apolitical.  I suppose the biggest lesson of all is that I am still learning and growing as a scholar (and that is a good, and expected, thing).

So, where does the 7-year experiment stand?  I am certainly aware that my refusal to be quiet and politically inert comes at a time where job security is threatened, political action is punished, radical ideas and people are attacked, and free speech is undermined.  It almost feels as though I am finding solid ground just as chaos ensues around me.

To my pleasant surprise, I have taken a position at an institution that celebrates — not merely tolerates — my outspokenness, my emphasis on collegiality and inclusivity, and even my blogging.  Silly me, I chose this job knowing I would be comfortable to engage in this kind of advocacy.  But, it took explicit affirmation from my colleagues, chair, and dean to fully acknowledge and appreciate it.  It seems I am appreciated because of, not despite, my emphasis on intellectual activism and accessibility.  So, until I begin seeing indications to the contrary, I am going to keep being myself.  I feel even more compelled to do this kind of work, and take this kind of approach, because of the number of scholars who can’t.

I Am A Gentleman And A (Militant) Scholar

all me

In my final semester of grad school, I met one of my academic heroes — one of the most critical sociologists of our time.  Those days, I rarely left the house because I was on dissertation lockdown; but, I definitely made a point to see his talk and meet him.  He was invited to our campus to speak about his latest research.  His visit also included time to meet with a small group of grad students.  He joined us a little late and frazzled because of some transportation troubles.  Once settled, he invited us to introduce ourselves and our research interests.  “Hi, I’m X,” the first student spoke.  “I study immigration.”  “With whom?” our guest demanded; “who in your department studies immigration?!”  We nervously giggled.  Given his own research, the grad students who showed up were exclusively race and ethnicity scholars.  And, what could we say to defend the department that has few professors who study race, ethnicity, and immigration?

We all knew what he meant.  It is a reality we lived with each year of our graduate training.  But, what surprised me, and possibly my fellow grad students, was his quick and explicit critique of the department’s lack of race and ethnicity scholars and scholars of color.  I thought, “of course we all know it, but you can’t say it out loud!”  Why not?  He said nothing inaccurate about this weakness of our program.  He did not offer a critique that we disagree with.  So, why did his outspokenness on the “elephant in the room” make me squirm in my chair, at least initially?

Interpersonal Militance vs. Scholarly Militance

As I later reflected on that interaction and my reaction to it, I finally became conscious of a duality in my life I had not fully named.  For our guest, I had expected him to be interpersonally collegial because he was insistent in being academically critical.  He does not study and teach about race; he studies and teaches about racism.  He has broken the unspoken rule that, at least in sociology, one can study race so long as it does not make our white colleagues uncomfortable, or even implicate them.  I learned this distinction, but also that one has to balance this kind of scholarly militance with interpersonal niceness.  And, apparently I had been playing with this duality in my own career.

The tension between these two expressions of militance — the explicit and unapologetic critique of oppression — manifests in many ways, big and small.

A few examples:

Small example: In the review process for my first solo-authored article, I added a few more thank yous and other forced niceties to compensate for my resistance to the reviewers’ pressure to “tone down” my language.  I refused to speculate about what victims of discrimination may do to bring this kind of treatment on themselves.  I refused to delete the word “oppression” from my discussion of intersectionality — the intersection among systems of oppression.  These requests had nothing to do with my argument nor my findings; worse, they were offensive.  Of course, I did not thank the reviewers for these suggestions, but I had to find other places to amp up my gratefulness for their other (helpful) suggestions.

Big example: While on the 2012-3 academic job market, I framed myself as a mainstream sociologist.  I wore a full suit, sometimes even a three-piece, on interviews.  For a time, I deleted my Facebook account.  And, I scoured my blog and Twitter account, deleting posts and tweets that were too radical or militant.  All of this was to compensate for my work on discrimination and sexuality, and whatever reputation had already acquired through my blogging before the job market.  And, though I slighted shifted my blogging to highlight my scholarly perspective and work, I did not completely shy away from criticizing academia.  In hindsight, I realize it was my benefit to whittle the list of potential schools down to those that would appreciate these efforts and this perspective once on the job.

This is my general approach to navigating my everyday interactions with students, colleagues, and administrators.  I make no secret of my politics, including my critique of inequality in academia.  But, I exert a great deal of energy to looking the part of a normative academic and being a “nice guy.”  In my mind, I figure that I buy myself more wiggle room to be critical in my scholarship, blogging, and teaching by easing others’ (potential) interpersonal discomfort.  I suppose some aspect of this is adopting a strategy a family member once taught me: “don’t let them see you coming.”  But…

The Joke’s On Me

While I am comfortable in this approach, I am concerned that 1) it does not work and 2) it is slowly killing me on the inside.  First, let me address the former of these two, related points.  On a number of occasions, I have expressed my surprise to a colleague, advisor, or friend that my politics “were showing.”  A few weeks into my first semester on the tenure-track, I was surprised to find out that my department colleagues — and even my dean — were aware of my blogging (and like it!).  Yes, it seems a bit silly to think academics are not capable of searching for “Eric Grollman” on Google.  I recall being surprised when my advisor suggested, “Eric, you study discrimination… search committees already know [your politics]”.  That leaves me wondering what jobs I did not get because of my politics, and other opportunities from which I have been excluded.

The second issue is that this approach is a form of emotion work.  I devote a great deal of energy each day to forcing a smile, biting my tongue in battles I chose not to fight, and playing the part of a great team player.  In a way, I am suppressing how I actually feel to appease others.  And, in this first year, this includes the suppression of feelings of misery and self-doubt as I project an image of happiness and confidence.  Needless to say, I am fucking exhausted when I get home from work.  The suppression is so (in)effective on some days that I finally make sense of the exhaustion, tightened shoulders, and tension at my temples when I journal — it takes letting how I actually feel out on paper to realize how awful my day really was.

Besides the impact this has on me, some friends and family have pointed out that being inauthentic robs my marginalized students of a role model — specifically, something more than a brown, queer face in a white heterosexist field.  The suit, softened critical perspective, and “nice guy” demeanor send the message to my queer students and students of color that success in academia requires being mainstream and normative — “selling out.”  Certainly, my more astute students have figured me out through the subtle expressions of my “true” self — and, again, any can find out everything through a web search.  But, I send the general message that they can achieve what have if only they blend in with their privileged peers.

Is Reconciliation Possible?

The aforementioned academic hero of mine appears to be one: militant scholar.  I do not know whether he has ever softened his scholarship to compensate for his outspokenness, or vice versa.  But, he seems to have figured out a way to call other academics’ bullshit out both on paper and in person.  But, I have heard, that came at a major professional cost…

Essentially, it seems marginalized scholars have a few options:

  1. Be outspoken in person, calling out your colleagues’ unethical and unequal practices.  But, leave no question that you are a phenomenal scholar by normative standards.  Still, the supposedly objective standards for hiring, tenure, promotion, etc. are not immune to personal feelings and bias.
  2. Do critical work.  Refuse to say you study “race”, for example, because you actually study “racism.”  But, interpersonally, do not give your colleagues much reason to dislike you.  Unfortunately, the supposed objectivity of evaluation standards may work against you in this approach.
  3. Play it safe on both fronts.  Be realistic about discrimination and inequality in academia.  Do not give colleagues a reason to dismiss you, your work, or your teaching.  But, are you ever fully immune to the prevalent practice of discrimination?
  4. Forget all of it.  Never give a second thought to trying to placate your colleagues’ delicate sensibilities.  But, you may pay in a big way.

I suppose the only real option marginalized scholars have is their poison of choice.  Or, you know, you could forgo a career in academia, only to find some other dual-edged sword in another field.  I guess if I am going to have to make such a difficult choice, I have decided to pick the one that lets me sleep at night feeling authentic and liberated.  I am tired of tasting blood from biting my tongue so much.

Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong.  It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting.  Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”

Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom.  Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.

But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion?  Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?

Tolerate Intolerance

Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes.  The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students.  One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes.  One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views.  Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them.  In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.

Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:

I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.

Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions?  I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter.  Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom?  I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc.  But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?

The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc.  If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material.  I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion.  And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”

Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective.  For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course.  So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between.  But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams.  I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.”  On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.

Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors

Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves.  (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.)  So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators.  But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.

First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate studentsSpecifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes.  Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world.  Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”

“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”

It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools.  For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance.  And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students.  Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.

Academic Freedom, Right?

With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors.  Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people.  If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job.  And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”

[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination.  But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution.  In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away.  Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations.  These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.

Freedom From Intolerance In Academia

At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms).  One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence.  This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“).  Yes, that is true for our democracy.

But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment.  Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview.  It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.

Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus.  This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion.  This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus).  We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class.  Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.

Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety.  “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors.  Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!).  I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.

Recommendations

  • If academia recognizes scholarship by  and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.  At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors).  Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.”  (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
  • In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia.  This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
  • Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity.  That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
  • Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door.  Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture.  Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
  • Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us!  Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
  • Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people.  It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.”  These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
  • Develop a safe zone/space training program.  I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people.  As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community.  The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
  • Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities.  First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people.  Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression.  Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men.  Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.

Resources For LGBTQ Academics