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A couple of weeks ago, I participated on a panel at the American Sociological Association annual meeting titled, “Navigating Queer Identities in the Department and Classroom.” I decided to reflect on what I feel is the “conditional acceptance” of LGBTQ scholars in sociology. I have provided my notes from that panel below.
I have faced surprisingly little homophobic discrimination in my academic career. There have been occasional stings of homophobic microaggressions: “you’re gay, do you like my shoes?”; “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS”; “did you want life insurance for your wife?”; “we’re so gay-friendly – there are lots of theatres and museums nearby.” But, I am not aware of instances of outright discrimination, harassment, or exclusion.
I do not take from my experiences the assumption that I am one of the lucky few, and certainty not the conclusion that homophobia is a thing of the past (even in academia). Rather, I am keenly aware of the choices – or, rather, compromises – that I have made that have shielded me from more severe discrimination and marginalization in academia. To some degree, at least compared to even a few years ago, lesbian, gay, and bisexual have achieved acceptance in sociology. The American Sociological Association’s (ASA) advocacy for marriage equality is nothing short of historical. (The field lags in recognizing, addressing, and eliminating transphobia.)
As a queer cisgender man, I have certainly felt welcome, if not accepted, in sociology. But, this acceptance has felt anything but unconditional. Throughout my career, I have felt conditionally accepted as an out queer man in sociology. I borrow this term – conditionally accepted – from the experience of coming out to my parents around age 18. In the years that followed, their initial denial and disappointment gave way to acceptance because I was doing well in school. They admitted that it became easier to accept my sexuality because I was successful. Translation: my parents would have continued to struggle if I were HIV-positive, suffering from drug addition, or another casualty of suicide or hate crimes.
“I Don’t Mind Gay People”
In my academic career, I have faced two manifestations of this conditional acceptance as a queer scholar studying queer communities. The first is akin to the supposedly welcoming phrase, “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t come up on me.” You can be queer in sociology – just do not demand the majority to change. Do not ask sociology to start recognizing sexualities and trans studies as legitimate areas of study.
Even before I even began my PhD program, I was discouraged from pursuing gender studies training. My dreams of a joint PhD in sociology and gender studies were quickly dismissed with the warning that I would never get a job. But, I was also discouraged from pursuing a graduate minor in gender studies; instead, my minor became research methods (i.e., statistics). By the midpoint of my training, I had picked up the habit of choosing more mainstream subfields and topics on my own. I focused on social psychology instead of gender or sexualities for my qualifying exam. My dissertation was primarily a medical sociology project, though it includes some attention to sexuality and intersectionality.
On the surface, the pressure to become a mainstream sociologist was a practical matter. I would, and did, get job offers as a quantitative medical sociologist who has published in mainstream journals. Maybe the interests I came to grad school with – wanting to study racism within queer communities using qualitative methods – would have led to a very different academic trajectory. But, the implicit message was that studying sexualities – or more specifically, studying queer people – was not important to sociology. To be successful, one does not become a sociologist of sexualities, and certainly not a sociologist of queer communities nor a queer sociologist. Rather, one becomes a medical sociologist, a criminologist, a cultural sociologist or some other reputable subfield, who happens to study LGBTQ people.
When I became a medical sociologist who happens to study queer people, and other oppressed groups, I stopped hearing that my research interests were “too narrow.” I stopped hearing, “you’ll never get a job with a dissertation on trans people.” Conforming paid off – at least professionally.
“Don’t Flaunt It”
The second manifestation of conditional acceptance for queer scholars in sociology is parallel to the expression, “I don’t care if you’re queer as long as you don’t flaunt it.” For lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, your sexual identity is not an issue so long as you do not make it an issue – at least in the eyes of our heterosexist colleagues. Besides advice on how to frame my work, I also occasionally received advice on how to present myself as a scholar. For conference presentations, I was warned against “shy guy stuff.” Translation: “man up.” To be successful, a scholar must present herself in a masculinist way. From the awful stories that I heard from trans and gender non-conforming peers, I understood that to mean my ticket to success on the job market was wearing suits and speaking with unwavering authority and expertise. Due to my fear of professional harm, I wear suits in almost every academic setting, including the classroom.
In my pursuit to conform to the heterosexist and cissexist standards in sociology and academe in general, I have been rewarded. But, that has come at great personal costs. What began as a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder stemming from the intense, urgent demands of grad school morphed into anxiety about interacting with other people in general – even students. I find only slight comfort in my suits from the fear of being dismissed, disrespected, or even fired. I struggle to find a home within sociology. My work falls primarily in medical sociology, yet I remain unknown in that subfield of the ASA. I find a sense of community in the sexualities section, but my limited research feels insignificant to the study of sexuality. Finding the proper home for awards and sessions is a challenge each year, as well.
More generally, I feel my professional identity has almost completely dissociated from my sexual, gender, and racial identities, as well as my activism. Though I am undeniably out via my blogging and other public writing, my scholarship, and the picture of my partner on my office desk, my queer identity is disconnected from my professional presentation of self. In the classroom, I only explicitly out myself after students have completed course evaluations because I fear that I will be deemed biased or “too activist.” I suppose I am somewhat in the closet intellectually and pedagogically. I do not feel authentically queer as a scholar and teacher.
I probably should not be surprised by my experiences. I first read Patricia Hill Collins’s essay, “Learning from the Outsider Within,” in my first semester of graduate school. Through that 1986 piece, Collins warned me that scholars of oppressed communities face the pressure to “assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” in order to become sociological insiders. The outsider within status is one filled with tension between one’s experiences and worldview and the false ideology of objectivity in mainstream sociology. Collins noted that some sociological outsiders resolve this tension by leaving the discipline, while others suppress their difference to become sociological insiders. Apparently, I have pursued the latter path.
Some Advice For LGBTQ Sociologists (And Scholars in General)
I do not share these experiences to criticize my graduate program, or as an excuse to vent about that chapter of my life. I also refrain from casting blame, as I am partly responsible. Knowing the norms and values of academia, I have made various compromises in order to get ahead. Fortunately, there are improvements, albeit reflecting slow change. For example, just 3 years after the 2012 sexualities ASA pre-conference in Denver, CO, sexuality will be the 2015 theme for the main ASA meeting in Chicago. And, I do not want to characterize the academic career options for queer people as bleak, facing either conformity and selling out or perpetually being on the margins of sociology.
I do believe there is hope for an authentic, happy, and healthy career for queer sociologists, including those who study gender and sexualities. I suspect we must all make some sort of concessions in order to success in academia, though this burden falls more on marginalized scholars. It may be useful, then, to determine how far one is willing to concede. At what point does advancing in one’s career outweigh the costs to oneself, one’s identity and values, one’s family, and one’s community? I recommend reflecting on this at multiple times in one’s career, particularly with upcoming milestones, new jobs, and other transitions. Essentially, can you live with the tough decisions you must make?
- If you are forced to make concessions, or even sell out in some way, then make sure there are other sources of community, authenticity, happiness, or validation in place in your life. Find or create a queer community, maybe specifically of other academics. Have one fun, critical, or super queer project for every few projects that are more mainstream; maybe use these projects as opportunities to collaborate with other queer scholars. If your research is pretty devoid of queer issues, find ways to cover them in your classes, or vice versa, or focus your service and advocacy on queer initiatives.
- Look for queer role models among your professors or senior colleagues. Look outside of your own department or university if necessary. And, in turn, consider being a role model for your students and junior colleagues – that means being out if it is safe to do so. Incorporate sexualities and trans studies into your syllabi to demonstrate the relevance and importance of these subjects in sociology. At the start of the semester, ask students for their preferred name and pronoun, and mention yours.
- Before enrolling into a program or accepting a job, do your homework. How safe will you be as an out LGBTQ person? In the campus and local newspaper, can you find evidence of anti-LGBTQ violence, discrimination, and prejudice? Are queer scholars, especially those who do queer research, supported and included? Email queer and queer-friendly students or faculty. I have heard some suggest being out on interviews and campus visits, which seems counterintuitive; but, if you face discomfort or hostility, you would know what to except upon going there.
- Let’s be honest about what we are talking about here: figuring out how to survive as queer people within heterosexist and cissexist academic institutions. In order to be included, in order to create queer communities, in order to see our own lives reflected in scholarship and curriculum, we must fight. Like it or not, we must be activists to ensure our survival and inclusion within academia and other social institutions.
- Let’s keep having these conversations. It is crucial that we know that we are not alone, and that we have a supportive community in sociology.
I am well aware that this post may dissolve into self-centered, defensive mess. But, it is worth the risk of appearing “arrogant,” “entitled,” and… what is the other insult my anonymous online haters have used? Oh, and “whiny.” If you read further, you cannot say that I did not warn you. I need to say this. And, if I actually end up publishing this on the blog, it means I think others can relate, or at least find something useful to take from my experiences.
Two years ago, I received some less-than-supportive feedback in response to my plan to finish my dissertation in a year, while going full-force on the academic job market. “It’s too much work.” “You’re dissertation will be ‘good,’ but not ‘great.'” “You won’t get a job.” “You won’t get a good job.” “You’re not ready.” “At least apply to dissertation fellowships, as well.” “You won’t have time to think.” I forged ahead anyhow; I could barely stand the thought of the upcoming year, let alone two more years. With encouragement from my partner, family, and friends, I decided against limiting my sights on the prized R1 path.
With a job offer in hand from the school I liked, that is near my family, and would celebrate my intellectual activism, I received less-than-supportive feedback again. “You’ll be come irrelevant.” “You’ll slow down in publishing.” “Sure, you’ll be happy, but…” “I would decline the offer in hopes for an interview at a [R1 school].” I forged ahead anyhow. With the encouragement of my partner, family, and friends, I accepted my current position.
After Year 1…
- I am content in my new job, finding support for my research, scholarship, and advocacy.
- I had two articles published, including one that was the lead article in the top journal of my subfield. (A second article has an R&R there.)
- I received a $3,000 internal teaching grant to develop a new course (Medical Sociology).
- I will be awarded the Best Dissertation Award from the ASA Section on Mental Health in August. (Not “good,” not “great,” but the “best!“)
- I was elected as a council member for the ASA Section on Sexualities, a three-year position.
- I was invited to join the editorial board for Contexts magazine, to begin a three-year term in January 2015.
Let me be clear — I would not have had as many choices regarding my career path without the support of my committee and the high quality of my training. But, I do worry they were a little too cautious, even pessimistic. In some ways, I feel I was underestimated. And, recognizing that means I cannot help to begin to wonder about other ways in which I was not pushed, or that I did not push myself, to go farther. If anything, it means recognizing others’ good intentions, considering their advice, but making sure to listen to my own gut and heart. In the end, it is my life; I have to be willing to live with, and learn from, the mistakes I make along the way. So far, I do not regret my decisions one bit.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
- See my post on advice for preparing for the job market, and the additional sources of advice at the end
- “Tips for a Massive Job Search” from Ellen Spertus
- “On the Ethics of Juggling Job Offers” by Terry McGlynn
- “What to Ask During an Academic Job Interview” by Tara Kuther
- “Warning Signs and Red Flags That Academic Job Hunters Should Know” via Notes from the Ironbound
- Advice for preparing for the campus visit via Inside Higher Ed
- Tips for the negotiation process via Inside Higher Ed
- Six Steps to Finding a Job via Inside Higher Ed
In a post I wrote for Conditionally Accepted, I reflected on my struggle to be successful in academia (i.e., play it “safe”) while being authentic, fulfilled, and happy. There just seems to be an imperfect balance between success and ______ (fill in the blank: authenticity, happiness, well-being, having a life). The better I get at being an academic by traditional, normative, safe standards, the more inauthentic, underwhelmed, and unhappy I feel. But, doing the things that are true to my passions and that make me happy take away time from those activities that will grant me tenure.
There is no known script for academics like me. And, the threshold of being just happy and authentic enough without risking one’s job, credibility, or status is never clear, nor is it universal. So, I stand at the start line of a lifetime of experimenting. Today’s example:
Ah, yes, a public, campus-wide announcement (at least to the LGBTQ newsletter subscribers) that I am queer and proud. Helllooooo Richmond!