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I Souled Out

Around this time last year, a few friends and colleagues — those with whom I was not as close — continued to ask about the outcome of my academic job search.  “Oh, how nice!”  “Where’s that?”  “Are you excited to go there?”  To put it politely, my decision to take a job at a liberal arts university was not without push-back from my department.  Though I stood firm in my decision to accept a job at a department and university I liked, that is close to my family, and that presented the closest thing to “balance.”  But, I could not help but feel a bit defensive against any sort of question regarding my decision.  Even to a simple, polite, “oh, I haven’t heard of University of Richmond before,” I automatically explained my reasons for choosing it.  It was as though I felt I needed to justify myself, to convince others that I was not a failure for not taking a job at a Research 1 university.

The notion that “it’s your life!”, even articulated begrudgingly by those who pushed hard for me to “go R1,” has — so far — proven true.  Life goes on.  Fortunately, it is going on with me in a place where I feel content.  The funny thing is fighting to make a career decision that best suited my needs (professionally, health and well-being, politically, family) has shifted to being told that I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a job (period). I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job.  I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job after one year on the academic job market.  I am lucky to be a professor now at 28, having gone straight through high school, college, and graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Lucky?

I have already heard the line that 80% of what occurs on the job market is beyond one’s own control.  Who knows what search committees want, what departments need, what Deans tell them they want, and how universities operate in terms of hiring?  I definitely buy that.  But, considering the prevalence of discrimination in the US including academia, I resent the assertion of luck in my success.  Yes, let me rattle off my oppressed identities once again.  I am a fat Black queer scholar who studies sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, and discrimination.  No matter my efforts to “soften” my public image by deleting blog posts that might be too radical or militant, much of it was still out there and easy to find.  Search committees were not beating down my door to offer me a job.  And, those interviews and job offers that I received were a reflection of 80% that is beyond my control, 20% my publications, teaching experience, and committee’s letters — and 15% selling out throughout my graduate training.  Telling me I am “lucky” is both insulting and a perverse view of how hiring decisions are made in academia.

I Souled Out

Let me think for a moment to see if I can pinpoint where it began.  Like many kids with aspirations for college, and college students with aspirations for graduate school, I was involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and aimed for high grades.  But, all of that felt like the hard work and sacrifice that was necessary for anyone.  It was at the start of my graduate training when I realized I needed to start sacrificing who I was as a person in order to be successful.

I suppose the need to trade off bits of my soul in exchange for professional success first crystallized in my second semester.  I attended a talk in my department on public sociology, and was disappointed by the speaker’s approach to make sociology publicly relevant and accessible.  I came filled with rage, hating graduate school so much those days because racism had reared its ugly head right within one of my classes — on the first day, nonetheless.  I wore a gawdy, baggy hoodie to signify “don’t fucking talk to me.”  And, it worked.  Blackness — specifically Black rage and Black militance — stood out, and seemed to make others uncomfortable.

I went to the National Sexuality Resource Center‘s (at SFSU) summer institute on sexuality that year, and was given life that I needed so badly at that point.  I met queer people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and of different academic stripes, who shared my passion for social justice and inclusion and my critical perspective.  I cried at our award ceremony at the end of the summer institute because I did not want it to end.  In between sobs, I said that I wished my fellow institute participants were my grad school cohort.  I returned to grad school that fall ready to make it work, but on my terms.  So, I got my tongue pierced.  I noticed furrowed brows from one of my professors; I suppose saying something was out of the question, but facial expressions can say much more.  I took it out that same day.

Grad school knocked me back on my ass that second year.  I was still miserable, still debating whether to leave or transfer to another program.  That winter, I got sick while visiting a friend.  After a couple of days, feeling a bit better, I went to visit other friends.  I suppose I was not as well as I thought.  I completely missed a red light and hit a car going through the intersection.  Fortunately, there were minor bumps and bruises, though both cars were totaled.  I was staying with my parents for the holidays… and it was their car I wrecked.  My mother was not happy with me.  But, she set her anger aside because she had to care for me — I was sick once again, and now had a badly injured hand.  Feeling so helpless over those remaining days of winter break changed something in me.  I returned to my grad program knowing that it was my job to make the training work for me.  After a year and a half of misery, I decided it was either time to change the situation to stop being miserable or just leave.  Why waste any more of my life?

Making it work, at times, meant selling out.  I said goodbye to any clothes that could be read as “too Black,” “too urban,” “too thuggish,” or “too militant.”  I worked at being more patient with people who were not the most open-minded, accepting, or understanding.  I stopped resisting advice from professors, which, admittedly, at times simply meant appearing more open to their suggestions.  I slowly shifted into what I saw as the “good little graduate student.” And, it paid off.

  • I solidified my use of quantitative methods, given its valued status in my department, and sociology in general.
  • When applying to graduate schools, I decided on sociology over gender, women, and sexuality studies programs; I figured I could get a PhD in the former and get a job in the latter, but never the other way around.  Then, I was discouraged from pursuing either the gender studies or sexuality studies graduate minors; instead, I made research methods (read: quantitative methods) my minor.  I also decided on social psychology for my qualifying exam, not gender or sexuality as I actually wanted.  So, besides a couple of courses, my graduate training is squarely in mainstream sociology.
  • I continued to move toward marketing myself as a mainstream sociologist — one who is within a major subfield but happens to study a particular population.  That is, I learned that studying LGBT people was not enough; one had to be a medical sociologist who focused on LGBT people.  That is exactly how I marketed myself when applying to jobs.
  • Socially, I pushed myself to interact more with those I saw as “making it.”  How were these people going through the same program as me but without ever feeling miserable?  Unlike the professional changes I was making, this did not last.  These people were not miserable because they were not marginalized in the same ways as me (or at all).  Unfortunately, this meant that they were unwilling to hear my complaints, or seemed to dismiss other students like me as responsible for their own misery.

Recovering My Soul

How far I had gone in selling out became apparent just in my last year of grad school.  I sat on a panel about diversity in grad school and, more specifically, the challenges that certain students faced because of their marginalized status(es).  A student in the audience, to our surprise, vented about all of the compromises they made to survive, and times they bit their tongue instead of challenging racist comments from their classmates.  Their reflection struck a chord with me.  Wow, how much of my own soul have I given up, compromised, or hidden in order to get ahead in my career?

I definitely see it today.  As I look at my CV, I see few publications on sexuality — the very thing I went to graduate school to study.  A colleague even remarked his surprise that my primary line of research is on discrimination and health; as much as I talk about sexuality, teach courses on it, and publicly write about it, he assumed sexuality is my primary area of research.  My students, too, note their surprise, seeing two shelves of books on sexuality compared to half on health and half on discrimination.  As I looked for paper awards in sociology to which I can apply, I realized I am eligible for those in health and none on sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body.  Some days, I do not even know who I have become professionally and intellectually.

I am still carrying on with suits and ties in an effort to “blend in.”  This semester, a few former students noted that they sense I have my “guard up,” that I seem nervous or uneasy at times, leaving them to wonder who I really am.  I am sure I have also made certain comments that piqued their interest in me enough to even think about these things or to notice.  But, as open as I have been about making certain decisions about how I present myself, and it seems everyone knows, the joke is on me apparently.  What good is a disguise if everyone knows it is a disguise?  For my own well-being, it seems it is time to let go of this strategy because it is not helping and actually takes a toll.  And, increasingly, I am seeing that attempting to blend in is doing a disservice for my marginalized students.  Some seem to want me just to be me so badly because there are no others who are (exactly) like me.  Why deny them that?  Oh, right — tenure.

But, to my surprise, I am finding that I have joined a place that already knew who I am (it seems silly to think you can hide who you are when you have had an online presence since the start of grad school) and likes who I am.  I was in job market-mode when i interviewed, so I was not fully conscious of the comfort I would feel politically.  But, I do believe, at a semi-conscious level, I made a note of that benefit of this job (over others).  I chose this job because I can do critical work, serve the local community, and blog (even about academia!).

Tenure

Concluding Thoughts

A part of me wonders whether I would even have this job if it were not for the ways in which I souled out.  Would I have been forced to stay in graduate school longer?  Would I have fewer publications?  Would I have been forced to teach more because I never received external funding?  Would I have stayed miserable, maybe even dropped out of graduate school all together?  Would I ever get a tenure-track job?  Pessimism here is very tempting…

It is also tempting to say that I sacrificed in such big ways, it all paid off, and I lived happily ever after.  But, I do not want to offer that as the moral of the story.  I do not want to send the message to other marginalized scholars they can be successful with just a little hard work and selling out.  If anything, I will accept that I made certain sacrifices to get ahead so that I can change that narrative.  Ah, yes, and that serves as yet another vote for being authentic and comfortable where I am now.  I see myself as no role model to my students if my success exists solely because of the ways in which I souled out.

I am not alone in making sacrifices to advance my career.  And, this happens for marginalized folks outside of academia, as well.  My point here, though, is to highlight that it does occur in academia.  The implicit message sent is that success is narrowly-defined, which usually means that marginalized folks must work at downplaying their marginalization, their Otherness, to fit in the mainstream definition of success.  Sometimes the messages are explicit, like the gender policing I have witnessed or experienced firsthand to “encourage” grad students to present themselves in masculine(-ist) ways.  At times, it seems you have to choose the (limited) ways you can embrace difference, criticism, or militance because there is a threshold that one should not exceed if you want to be accepted at all.

It is my hope that speaking publicly about this, and regularly maintaining conversations like this publicly through this and others’ blogs, will highlight what many marginalized scholars face in their training and careers.  More optimistically, I hope that these kinds of demands cease, that one’s unique social location, interests, and perspective are embraced rather than seen as inconsistent with traditional or mainstream scholarship.  Pessimistically speaking, as tenure-track jobs become scarce, and people of color and women are overrepresented in contingent positions, I fear the pressure to conform and sell out will only increase in the years to come.

My Interview On Social Media Use And The Academic Job Market

In the winter issue of the newsletter of the Medical Sociology section of the American Sociological Association, you will find an interview by UGA sociology PhD student Jessica Seberger with me on social media use and the academic job market.  Jessica, as the Student Newsletter Editor, has been interviewing recent PhDs about their experiences on the job market and in the early part of their career in academia, with a particular focus on using social media for research, teaching, and service.  I was honored to be her latest interviewee!

You can see the full newsletter [download PDF] or just the interview below.

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For my stint as student editor I want to explore how recent PhDs found and secured positions within or outside of academia and how sociologists (with a focus on medical sociologists) connect to others through technology. I intend to explore discussion with sociologists who communicate extensively through Twitter, those who use groups on Facebook as a resource for classroom material, those who have and  maintain personal/professional blogs, and those who contribute op-ed pieces to major news outlets.

For this edition of the newsletter I interviewed Dr. Eric Grollman. Dr. Grollman recently received his PhD from Indiana University and has secured a tenure-track position at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman’s research examines the impact that prejudice and discrimination has on marginalized groups’ health, well -being, and world views. Within the last year he has also restarted a blog he started in graduate school. That blog, ConditionallyAccepted.com, provides a space for scholars who exist at the margins of academia. In the following interview we discuss his new position, his blog, and social media use by sociologists in academia.

JS: You’ve recently joined the University of Richmond as tenure-track professor. What made this position a good fit for you? How was your transition from graduate school to assistant professor?

Dr. Grollman: What I was looking for, on the job market, was a place where a good balance between personal life and professional life was possible. I’d heard this was more doable at a liberal arts institution. I also really wanted to work at a place where there was an acknowledged synergy between doing research and teaching. When I interviewed at the University of Richmond one of the professors whom I met with mentioned that they focused on this synergy, and I was drawn to that. I expected my transition to professor to be a bumpy transition, but making the switch from graduate student to professor isn’t as automatic as you’d expect. I also had plans to be politically neutral my first year but there were a couple of times where I stepped on political landmines that I didn’t know about and I had to deal with the consequences of that. So I was hoping to quietly focus on my work and establish myself but there was still political stuff that I found myself bumping up against.

JS: In the last year you’ve restarted a blog you started as a graduate student. What inspired you to start the blog? Could you tell me a bit about it?

Dr. Grollman: I wanted to play it safe while on the job market so I censored my online social media accounts while on the job market but that self-censorship took a toll. At some point I thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore,” especially at a time when I was starting to see parts of academia that were really kind of ugly and upsetting [note from JS: see conditionallyaccepted.com for more details]. This was all when I was most socially isolated because I was working on my dissertation. So I started this blog where I planned to write about instances of discrimination and micro-aggressions, while keeping myself anonymous. But, I still felt it was too risky to do this while on the job market, so I deleted the blog. After graduating I still felt like there needed to be some space within academia, particularly for marginalized scholars who face these difficult and unfair experiences. I felt like these experiences needed to be highlighted so people can stop suffering in isolation. I found out later that many of my experiences were common, but I didn’t have those stories accessible to me. I hope that with this blog I can have this space where people are telling these stories, and talking about how they navigated through these experiences so we can make these experiences transparent.

JS: How have others responded to your blog within the field of sociology?

Dr. Grollman: It’s hard to gauge. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for someone to say, “Okay, you’re out of here, you’re fired.” So I’m still waiting for that but it hasn’t come yet. Ironically, I came to the University of Richmond thinking that this was a great place for me because no one would give me grief about blogging.  Initially, I still kept it really private, in part so I could gauge the political climate. At colloquy, when new faculty are introduced to the full faculty body, my dean introduced me and said, “Oh, this is Eric Grollman, he’s a new professor of sociology and he blogs, sometimes personal and critical reflections.” My heart dropped because I was being outed in such a big way. I kept waiting to hear if there’d be repercussions to my blogging. So, I asked the chair of my department, “Do you all know that I blog?” and she said, “Of course, it’s so public, everybody knows.” She said that people like it and that it was part of what made me strong as a candidate. That is not what I’m used to. That just reinforced why Richmond is a good place for me. Outside of my institution I have heard good things. A lot of people seem to appreciate it and say, “Oh this is so inspiring, you’re so brave.” So it’s been good overall.

JS: Do you use social media in other ways as a sociologist (for example, in the classroom or at conferences)?

Dr. Grollman: I haven’t figured out how much I want to use it in the classroom and pedagogically. Right now if I want to share links with my students, I’ll show them the link at the start of class. It’s something I’ve been thinking about but I would prefer to do my homework first before I start using it. I do use Twitter to put out teaching questions like, “Hey, people who teach, what would you recommend for ___.” At conferences, sometimes I’ll “live tweet” with other people so others who are not in a session have a record of what was said. Also, using Twitter and other social media has created a nice academic network, even with people I wouldn’t normally connect with at conferences or in person. It has been good in that way, as far as using and sharing resources.

JS: Do you feel compelled to be “on” or professional with your twitter account at all times?

Dr. Grollman: I’ve been trying to figure out what the right balance is. I’ve been feeling too “out there.” I don’t censor myself too much; I post a hybrid of personal and professional on Twitter. It’s just me and what I would say (outside of class). Lately, I’ve been becoming unhappy because sometimes it opens me up to hostility as I become more visible. I’m not really ready to deal with that kind of hostility. We simply don’t have professional norms around how (and whether) to use social media, whether it “counts,” and what protections there are for those who use it.

JS: Some of the topics on your blog are pretty personal. How do you feel about self-disclosure as a sociologist?

Dr. Grollman: I think it’s underrated. My opinion is that our goal seems to be being “objective,” which we know doesn’t exist. In general we seem to discourage using the personal as a perspective, as a support for something. Pedagogically, you can’t ask a human to set aside their humanness to make sense of the social world. If we want to have a conversation about how racism shapes health, it’s unfair and nearly impossible to ask me to set aside my own experiences with racism and my health. (Keep in mind that this is not at the expense of existing research and theory.) Since we don’t put these stories out there, they’re not out there. I think there’s power in telling your personal experience, otherwise we just leave it invisible and pretend that it doesn’t happen. Blogging and Twitter are spaces where I can actually write about my personal experiences. It opens up these new spaces to have these conversations that are for public consumption. My intent is to provoke conversations about these sensitive issues. For example, writing publicly about my struggles with anxiety in graduate school, or experiencing racist hostility from other academics hopefully contributes to a chorus of voices that highlight how pervasive these problems really are.

JS: What advice do you have for graduate students or junior faculty with regards to social media?

Dr. Grollman: I have two bits of advice. The first is to think about the benefits and consequences of using social media. The benefits of it are being open and accessible, inspiring people, or speaking in ways that you can’t in journals or in the classroom. The consequences may be that since it is public, what we do outside of the classroom and in publications may trickle into our colleagues’ evaluations of our work. You have to be comfortable with what you put out there. There are some people who have been harassed, particularly women who blog or are on Twitter, when people don’t agree with what they’re saying. The second piece of advice is to take time to reflect on why you’re using social media. Because we haven’t crystalized its professional value, you have to be intentional and self-directed in deciding why you’re using it and what you want to come from it.

On Choosing The Right Job

Yes, you read that appropriately.  This post is about the process of choosing a job once one has finished graduate school.

In the years leading up to my job search, I heard all sorts of warnings about how difficult the job market would be.  The scariest, yet most sound advice was to acknowledge that at least 80 percent of what occurs during one’s job search is beyond one’s control.  At the start, even deciding to go on the market is a negotiation with one’s committee and department.  But, I stress that this, and subsequent decisions, should also involve the other committee members in one’s life: family and one’s gut.  And, ultimately, where you take a position should be an informed choice.

Number Of Offers ≠ Number Of Options

Once you are on the market, securing one job offer is a major feat; landing multiple offers is described by many is “luck.”

Say you only land one job offer, and it is something short of perfect or your dream job.  You can choose not to accept it.  Sure, others will probably say you are foolish to give up a job “in this market!?!”  If you have any reason to hesitate in accepting a job at that institution, it is worth really asking yourself — is there a chance you will need to look for a new job within a few years, or even immediately?  I know of some folks who have chosen this route, but I cannot fathom taking a position knowing I will need to go through the stress of a job search again.

So, what other options are there?  There are a number of good reasons not to accept a visiting position.  But, the alternative may be staying in graduate school another year, maybe even two or more if subsequent job searches do not go well.  With another year in hell grad school as an option, I went on the job market with fairly open preferences for a job; you couldn’t pay me (ha!) enough to stay longer than I did.

To be completely honest, the “oh no, I’ll never get a tenure-track job!” fear stayed at a tolerable level because I eventually decided that academic jobs were just one type of job.  Yes, I am make the blasphemous statement that there are jobs outside of academia, as well as some within it other than faculty positions.  I told myself that if I received no offers, I would continue my job search but in applied and non-profit positions.  I know that leaving academia immediately after graduate school would come with the possible feeling that I am better off, but also with other academics’ assumptions that I was less committed.  (Oh, there are so many ways we jump from life decision — get married, have a baby, take something other than an R1 job — to assumptions about one’s commitment to the academy.)  Though I have seen some return to academia after some years working outside of it, the myth is that one will never be able to return (probably because of the aforementioned assumptions about commitment).

All of this is to say that I am troubled by the pressure to accept the sole tenure-track job offer one receives.  It is a job then, but it may mean a few unhappy years.  It is important to think about the long-term consequences of something that seems “better” today.

What if you have two or more offers?  Good for you!  Having one, or even none, is still no signal that one is not competent, or ready, or worthy of a job.  But, for the job search itself, it is nice to have two or more to choose from.  The aforementioned advice about considering alternative careers, or not even accepting a job, still apply here — even if you have 10 offers.  If/when you accept an academic position, it should be because you are absolutely certain that you want it, not because it is the expected outcome of graduate school.

A Few Things To Consider

Below, I offer some tips that may be useful as you weigh your options — even if you only have one offer.

Do Some Soul-Searching

If you have yet to sit down with yourself to make a job wish list — what are your wants and what are your must-haves in a job — do so before you accept an offer.  And, even if you have at earlier stages in the job search, I would encourage doing so again.

During my job search, I experienced great pressure to follow the path that was chosen assumed for me.  During the window I was given to accept the offer with University of Richmond, I went on an interview at a research-intensive university in the Midwest and was called with another interview invitation for a top-ranked program in the South.  I knew in my gut that UR would be a great place for me.  It was an offer I would accept if it was the lone job offer or one of many.  But, I had to revisit the wish list and some personal journaling to ignore all of the external (and internalized) pressure to “go R1.”

Contextualize Advice

When I began receiving advice that was so far afield of my interests, passions, and personal needs, I felt as though I wanted to shut my eyes and close my ears to concentrate on what my internal adviser was telling me.  This is not to say that others’ advice was bad or even malicious.  But, I had to remind myself that much of it was based either on an inaccurate or incomplete picture of who I am, and some is either standard advice (“go R1!”) or self-centered advice.

Unfortunately, so much advice presumes a certain commitment to academia, one that is uncomplicated when you are not disadvantaged in some way.  For example, telling people to take a job in North Dakota, either because it is a great school or one’s only offer, ignores that some people — especially queer people, people of color — may be miserable in such a place.

Do Your Research

While most who will offer advice have good intentions, the onus to make an informed decision falls on you.  The most work I had to do was to figure out what the heck liberal arts jobs really were.  Funny, most of the people telling me to “go R1!” have only been at research-intensive universities.  Thus, they are not really in a position to tell me what liberal arts jobs would be like.  I had to contact friends and colleagues who were actually in faculty positions at liberal arts colleges, and scour the internet for information and personal reflections on the differences from positions at research universities.  One of the most helpful reflections I read was “Are You A SLACer?” over at Memoirs of a SLACer.

On my interview with UR, my future colleagues were honest, yet positive about faculty life.  But, I supplemented those conversations with some investigative work.  I looked through the student newspaper, documented history of the university, and students’ personal reflections and ratings on the university (e.g., U.S. News & World Report).  I looked for specific things — the campus climate and institutional support for people of color and queer people.  Like any place, I saw a few concerning events in the not-so-distant past, and grumblings about the historical lack of racial and ethnic diversity.  But, I was impressed by the recent, intense shift toward greater inclusion.  For my other options, I saw enough of a concern that I had major reservations about accepting a position there.

Interview Them

It is crucially important in assessing whether a job is right for you that you treat a job interview as as though you are a potential buyer.  As I said, even if you receive one offer, you should think long-term about how the university fits in your life and career.  It is a potential employer’s job to sell the job to you, too.  A place that does not attempt to sell itself is either riding on its prestige (“you know you want me”) and/or may not be a place worth considering.  (Personal aside: I don’t care how big your di… *ahem* I am not status-obsessed enough to be impressed by prestige alone.)

I was particularly impressed with UR because parts of the visit were clearly tailored to my interests — namely meeting with staff/faculty involved with diversity programming on campus, and community-based research and teaching.  Not only were my future colleagues showing me that I could fit (resources, initiatives, climate), but that they also cared and celebrated the unique aspects of my scholarship.  Once I started, and slowly let down my guard, I have found they think quite highly of my blogging.  Hello, perfect job!

Observe And Take Notes

As an academic, you have skills to observe, critique, listen, connect dots, etc.  In your hunger for a job, do not turn off these skills during the interview and negotiation phases.  Observe interactions among faculty, especially across power lines: senior to junior faculty, privileged faculty to marginalized faculty (e.g., whites to colleagues of color), and vice versa.  Observe how faculty and administrators interact, or at least how they seem to talk about one another.  Observe how faculty interact with staff, especially the department’s administrative staff.  Observe how faculty interact, or talk about one another, across departments and colleges.  And, observe student-faculty interaction.

Of course, try to treat how students, staff, faculty, and administrators interact with you as participant observation.  Do not rush to either demonize or justify unusual interactions — at least until once you have enough information to assess the whole university and department.

Red Flags: On one campus interview, there were several red flags for me.  A few off-handed remarks were made by faculty that suggested they thought little of their students.  And, I was told outright community service was for post-tenure.  But, the sirens really went off when faculty either noted first-hand experience, or hearing about others’ experiences, with discrimination and exclusion.  I do not know if they assumed they were doing what is right by being completely honest, or maybe figured I could understand given my own research on discrimination.

In interactions with another school, faculty stressed so hard how diverse and accepting the college is — but it felt as though they were trying to convince themselves more than me.  Via a phone interview for a joint position, it was quite obvious the two departments had different visions of what the job entailed, and there seemed to be little connection across departmental lines.  Whether the departments themselves saw these as problems is important, too; but, that these problems exist was enough for me to be wary of taking job in these departments.

Personal Fit:  I also noticed varying levels of closeness among faculty.  On one visit, there were strong friendships among the faculty, but mostly among junior faculty; it seemed the senior faculty were on the margins of the department.  Ironically, the appeal for UR was that faculty have strong professional relationships, but have their independent lives after hours.  As the chair described it, the department is more like family than friends.  I was surprised that this was appealing to me, but now realize it was the promise of not having colleagues in my personal business.  I am free to make personal connections as I wish, and share the personal aspects of my life I feel comfortable sharing at work.  The supposed collegial, yet high-school-like microcosm that was graduate school has led me to appreciate leaving work at work and home at home.

Also, I took note of how relaxed or stressed faculty seemed.  Some of the most wound-up academics I know can easily dissolve into a monologue rant about all of their upcoming deadlines.  The flip-side is being carefree because one is working at a leisurely pace.  The strength for UR over my other options was that my future colleagues appeared to work hard, but at a pace and within a climate that did not mandate 24/7 stress and anxiety.

Others’ Advice

Remember, this is just a job.  You should chose one that serves your goals.  I am well aware that this is simply my perspective and experience speaking, so you may find others’ advice useful, too.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure.  I fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined).  Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community.  I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.

Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?

The Setup

I have done it all “right.”  Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal.  I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week.  I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule.  You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.

But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values.  Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break).  I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests.  This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list.  In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans.  And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).

Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.”  I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that.  And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”

Or, So I Thought…

So, I have done everything “right.”  But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down.  Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress.  Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this.  But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once.  Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.

And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself.  The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire.  The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes.  The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school.  The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.

Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up.  Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul.  The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.

The Meltdown

The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits.  By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years.  On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical.  By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office.   I began to cry on the drive home.  It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.

When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story.  I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now.  Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time.  After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.

Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.”  I did not want him to go there.  It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job.  And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts.  So, why would I be upset?

I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues!  Of course, no place is perfect.  And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part.  But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.

Naming It

It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right.  First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones.  This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors.  Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors.  Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.

Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself.  I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?”  The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job.  And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.

Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer.  Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May.  It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.

Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me.  I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia.  But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline.  Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest).  And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.  As I  tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules.  It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals.  To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well.  This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:

  • It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional.  It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting.  That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
  • It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places.  It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
  • It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track.  It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death.  That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.

I could go on forever.  The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things.  It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status.  And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.

The Role Of Tenure

Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free.  If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom.  I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”

  • Tomorrow is not promised to me.  The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right.  He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college.  I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
  • My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision.  They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
  • My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations.  I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago.  Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
  • Obsessing about tenure Devoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself.  Yes, blaspheme!  Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals.  If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others.  And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
  • Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right?  Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever.  And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises.  So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.

So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.”  The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success.  A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction.  That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful.  Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.

If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model.  I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers.  And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself.  And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia.  So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.

I leave you with my current musical obsession: