Home » Posts tagged 'Identity'

Tag Archives: Identity

The Radical-Sellout Academic

Rally

A few months ago, I agreed to be a guest speaker via Skype for a professional seminar course in a master’s program in sexuality studies.  Per the professor’s request, I spoke about my experiences in academia, particularly navigating the academic job market.  Since that final chapter of my graduate training was one filled with heavy-handed advice yet the greatest level of independence yet, and authenticity and selling out, I necessarily spoke about my job search as a Black queer intellectual activist.  (Indeed, that was the narrative most relevant to this class of sexualities scholars of diverse backgrounds.)  In addition to pushing back against others’ expectations for my career, I also spoke about how I presented myself, including decisions regarding my online presence.

I briefly rambled about my job search, graduate training, and career thus far, and then opened the floor for questions and comments.  One student in the class asked, “you mentioned your social justice advocacy — but, all you do is blog?”  Ouch.  I went on the defense, arguing that, as a new tenure-track professor, all I have the time and energy for once my week is done is to blog.  Teaching and research are the primary tasks upon which I am evaluated; and, service hardly ever means community service, and probably never activism.

What I did not say was, “you’ve got me!  I guess I’m not really an activist.”  In fact, I decided to pursue an academic career because I never felt competent at front-lines activism and community organizing.  I am too sensitive and timid to be at the front of a picket line or going door-to-door to campaign.  I have always felt most comfortable pushing for change in academic settings.  And, from my senior honor thesis onward, I have felt my niche is in pushing for change via research and teaching.  But, as I sit before these students who were brave enough to pursue degrees in sexuality studies — with my dress clothes on, and my PhD in sociology — I did feel called out.  What about my life right now resembles anything “activist”?  (Nothing and everything.)

Later, another student expressed appreciation for my efforts to make change from within.  Yes!  The student named for me my brand of activism in a way that seemed so obvious, but never crystallized before now.  If all who demand change are outside holding picket signs, getting petitions signed, contacting politicians, etc., who is on the inside making sure important institutions even hear these demands?  And, the reverse means all are inside with their hands tied by institutional practices and norms.  Some need to work for change inside, some need to demand change from the outside.  I have long known this, and decided that I am most effective at working from within.  But, I do feel a twinge of guilt that I am not doing “more” (meaning working outside of the system).

Ironically, I have faced the harshest criticism for being too much of an activist.  In publicly declaring my effort to infuse academia with activism, others have disagreed that the two can ever mix.  In specifically challenging the standard of “objectivity” in research and in the classroom, given its implicit valuing of the dominant group’s perspective (i.e., white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West), I have been mocked for daring to bring my own perspective into my work.  Even in simply proposing that more (sociological) social psychological research focus on sexual orientation, I was passive aggressively chided by a professor for being “Mr. Activist.”  The criticism and character assaults I have faced as of late seem to suggest I am the most radical activist to ever work in sociology; I appear to be a threat to the discipline, and must be squashed to protect it.  Even just blogging has rubbed a number of fellow sociologists the wrong way.

I don’t understand — am I just another sellout, drawn to the comforts of a tenure-track career in academia?  Or, am I yet another radical scholar who threatens the academic status quo?  How can I be both?

Do You, Boo!

The summer brought in an unexpected wave of anxiety.  The momentary reprieve from teaching did not bring peace of mind; it seemed to open the door to all sorts of doubts and questions.  The gateway stressor was “what am I supposed to be doing during my first summer?!”  That seemed to lead to asking myself competing questions: “what do I want to do this summer?” and “what kind of career do I want?”  The latter question reopened the door for me to obsess over revisit the warnings I received from my graduate advisors about taking a liberal arts job (e.g., little research productivity, irrelevance in the profession/discipline, become “damaged goods” in the eyes of research universities).  How could I focus on wanting to relax and do some traveling when I am worried about tenure, irrelevance, and others’ opinions?

I have learned to listen to my body when I experience symptoms of/related to my anxiety.  I talked over my worries with trusted mentors, colleagues, and friends, decided to take Fridays off all summer, planned another short vacation, and worked on settling these doubts once and for all.  I recognized that I had allowed others’ opinions — my graduate advisors’, those that I presumed of my current institution, and online critics — to heavily affect me.  And, I had lost sight of the fact that I must work to define my own career my entire life, especially if I dare to create change within and through academia.

As selfish as it feels, I have been painfully aware that I must work on my self-esteem and confidence before I can really get to work to make change.  That means getting more comfortable in my own skin and in the decisions that I make.  I have revisited the writings of Patricia Hill Collins on being an “outsider within” in academia and on intellectual activism. No matter how much change I dare to make in academia, simply being in it will forever mean being an outsider within; if I want a satisfying and authentic career, I will have to work for it and push back against the status quo.  But, I do want to make change.  I want my discipline to better reflect the lives (and perspectives!) of oppressed communities — speak truth to power!  I want academia to proactively work to improve the world beyond the ivory tower  — speak truth to the people!  No matter what, I do not have a choice but to be an activist for the sake of my own survival, and the survival of my communities.

For leisure reading, I picked up Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.  I knew about her “wise Latina” comment, which she was forced to retract essentially upon being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.  But, I did not have more context for the sentiment.  In essence, she is an outsider within in the legal profession.  She is well aware of, and has fought to challenge, the barriers faced by people of color in law and the courts.  And, she intentionally draws upon her background and personal experiences to inform her perspective as a judge (and when she was an attorney); but, which she makes clear, she does not allow her personal perspective trump legal precedence, the law, or the Constitution.  Rather, her perspective as a Latina woman is an asset not well reflected in the law and courts.  All of this mirrors Collins’s argument about the value of a Black feminist perspective in sociology.

Sotomayor and Collins, as well as other “outsiders within” in academia, serve as important role models for me.  Their struggles and triumphs remind me to stay the course — continue to bring about change within and through academia by drawing on my own experiences and perspective.  I cannot afford to waste time and energy on what other people think about or expect of me.  The tall task of advancing a fat Black/multiracial queer feminist worldview stands before me, with the additional challenge of doing so both with and against the mainstream theories and models in my discipline.

Besides, as one grad school professor told me, I will always struggle with the tension between activism and academia; the day I find balance between the two is the day I have gone too far in one direction or the other.  I will forever be a sellout by radical activists’ standards, and a radical by mainstream academics who defend the status quo.  Oh well, this radical sellout has work to do.

On The Conditional Acceptance Of LGBTQ Scholars In Sociology

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”

ScholarThe 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 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.

Blogging For (A) Change

Should academics blogSome academics are hesitant to do so, but a generation of young scholars — who have been raised with technology — have pointed out many benefits of doing so (and using Twitter).  For one, it presents something other than the traditional format and flow of academic writing.  The freedom (and fun) of writing for a blog can actually help our traditional academic writing.  Also, it presents a medium to transcend the traditional barriers to making academic work accessible.  Earlier this year, I wrote an essay, “Blogging For (A) Change,” about using blogging for intellectual activism (see below).

If you are interested in starting your own blog, there are several bits of advice on the web about getting started And, I am always looking for guest bloggers for ConditionallyAccepted.com!

___

I recently wrote on essay on blogging for Remarks, the newsletter for the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association.  In it, I reflect on the reasons why I blog, namely to make academic knowledge more accessible, and my participation in the recent blog discussion on “post-racism.”  Institutional support does not exist to encourage academics to blog or use other forms of social media for their scholarship (yet), so I elaborate on some of the potential professional and personal benefits of blogging.

Download a pdf of the Remarks newsletter here, or you can jump right to the original, extended version of the essay below.  This post was featured as a guest blog post at RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, and captured the interest of Dr. Fabio Rojas who responded with “why activism and academia don’t mix.

——

Blogging For (A) Change

To blog or not to blog?  Within the context of the debate over public sociology, which seems as old as the discipline itself, the question does not seem that novel. But, with technology advancing even as I write this, the question does warrant attention.

Still today, much academic knowledge, be it publications or lecture material, is locked within the academy. Individuals who can afford it are welcomed into institutions of higher education to learn basic aspects of any discipline of their choosing. Their student status allows them to peruse whatever academic journals to which their university has purchased access. But, beyond the university, the public has limited access to academic knowledge. And, even those who can access it, like our students, there is little hope (and utility) of gleaning much from the latest issue of American Sociological Review.  Even Contexts articles are behind pay-walls!

On Activism and the Academy

I have wrestled with the ivory tower’s barriers to academic knowledge since the start of my graduate training in 2007. Like most of my colleagues of marginalized backgrounds, particularly scholars of color, I came to graduate school as an activist, prepared to devote my life to making a difference. Still today, I am often frustrated by my naiveté that the academy, by design, is apolitical and “objective.”  The first time it was made painfully aware to me, a professor joked, “oh, we still haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”  No, they still have not.

Unsurprisingly, the value-systems of many academic institutions (particularly research-intensive universities) reflect and reinforce this apolitical and supposedly objective culture. One’s job prospects, tenure-ability, and chances of promotion depend, first, upon one’s research in peer-reviewed journals; then, some attention is paid to the quality of one’s teaching. Finally, one’s service to the department, university, and discipline are given a quick skim. Of course, service never means serving communities in need. (That is what you do in your “free” time.)

Unfortunately, these institutional priorities mirror those of white, middle-class scholars. I suspected this from the start of my academic career. But, I had my “proof” when I saw the ASA presentation, “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions” (see the Powerpoint here).  In a 2009 sample of 1,473 doctoral students, African American and Latina/o doctoral students ranked as their number 1 and number 3 reason to attend graduate school, respectively, to “contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US”; “contribute to my community” was number 2 for Latina/os. The top three reasons for white doctoral students were to “grow intellectually,” “improve occupational mobility,” and “make a contribution to the field.”  All these years of feeling my work was urgently needed to make a difference, while my white colleagues were merely curious about the social world, now had confirmation.

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Intellectual Activism

Recently, I have grown more comfortable in accepting that I pursue change-making through my research, teaching, and academic and community service, and that I do so in an environment that tries to “beat the activist” out of me.  I have been particularly inspired by Patricia Hill Collins’s latest book, Intellectual Activism, which makes such work seem like a given for scholars of color.

Collins makes a distinction between speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people. Indeed, by pursuing traditional academic work, namely publishing research, we aim to accomplish the former. That is, we try to advance research, and even challenge others’ research, to better understand social problems, make visible the lives of historically marginalized communities, and so on. But, such efforts alone could mean that your work never leaves the pay-walls of academic journals. Instead, to do so, we must speak to (and with) those outside of the ivory tower (e.g., public speeches, working with community groups).  (See her Contexts article on these ideas, as well).

The importance of both of these intellectual activist efforts became very clear to me with the publication of my first solo-authored article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Understandably, I was excited upon news of its acceptance. But, from acceptance to OnlineFirst to print and beyond, I kept feeling that something was missing. In fact, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I was underwhelmed. Here, I had achieved the great feat of publishing in one of the discipline’s top journals, and ended up feeling more irrelevant thereafter. Getting somewhat choked up in revealing this to a few friends, I realized I was aching for some sense that my publication would actually matter to the people it was about – marginalized individuals who face discrimination and bear the health consequences of these experiences.

I suspect I will eventually be cited, as many scholars are doing important, novel work on discrimination and health. But, beyond those JHSB articles featured as policy briefs, few outside of the academy will ever see my article. Whereas capturing the media’s attention for one’s research seemed to be the common route to accessibility, I pursued a press release through Indiana University and one through ASA. I am grateful for these opportunities, but, again, disappointed by the outcome. A few sites that indiscriminately repost every academic article picked up the press releases. And, my study was featured in a few Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles.  No small feat!  But, it was not the New York Times attention of which I dreamed.

I considered sending printed copies of my article to non-profit organizations like NAACP, NOW, and HRC. But, I worried that their overworked staff had little time to figure out what to do with it. Ultimately, I decided to devote a guest blog post at Sociological Images to a summary of my article, which I also posted on my own personal blog.

Blogging as Intellectual Activism

Blogging – a form of writing on the internet (short for web-logging) – can serve many academic functions. In fact, at least in the way I approach blogging, it offers a unique space to simultaneously achieve efforts related to research, teaching, and service.  Again, using the example of my JHSB article, I was able to make my findings accessible beyond the JHSB readership (i.e. academics). In addition, it offered an unlimited space to elaborate or clarify. In particular, I was able to strip away much of the sociological jargon that likely hinders readability. In addition, I was able to offer simple bar graphs instead of multivariate models. While expounding upon my research, I also spent some energy to teaching an unfamiliar audience about some of the concepts within my article, namely the intersectionality theoretical framework.

In addition to extending traditional academic work, blogging also presents a space for more “real time” scholarship. One of the constraints of academic work is the lag in doing research to publication to uptake beyond the academy. Years may go by before one sees one’s first citation, and even more before one’s study has some impact, albeit indirect, beyond the ivory tower. As such, sociologists rarely attend to current events in their research.  Though one might find it challenging to pursue, for example, an ethnographic study of the Trayvon Martin murder case, one certainly could devote a five-paragraph blog assessment of the racial dynamics inherent within it. With so much political commentary offered for everyday current events, we certainly could use more sociologically-informed, critical perspectives to make sense of things.

Personal Benefits of Blogging

You may not be convinced by these aforementioned reasons to blog – that it offers a space to make your research and academic knowledge in general accessible to the public. Indeed, there is still little institutional value and support for such work. However, there are other benefits, both personal and professional, that may make blogging more enticing.

Professionally, blogging can serve as an opportunity to connect with other scholars. Though I am physically (and socially) isolated these days as I frantically finish my dissertation, I have been a part of an on-going blog discussion with Fabio Rojas (orgtheory.net), Tressie Cottom McMillan (tressiemc.com), and Jason Orne (queermetropolis.wordpress.com) about the persistence of racism in America, or the possibility that we are in living in a “post-racist” era. In addition, blogging can function as a space to mentor other scholars, or simply offer professional advice. Tanya Golash-Boza (SREM Section Chair) has a great blog (getalifephd.blogspot.com) that is filled with tips for writing and creating balancing in one’s schedule (and life in general). Karen Kelsky’s theprofessorisin.com was tremendously helpful for preparing for the job market.

Following the aforementioned blog debate on “post-racism,” I have also been reminded that blogging has a bit of a liberating effect. Of course, any additional writing tasks are good practice. But, blogging offers a space to write without censor, standard, and fear of “what will the reviewers think!”  Early on, I learned that my academic writing must be undeniably supported by prior research or my own findings. One cannot discuss what they are not measuring directly; “don’t talk about racism – you’re measuring race attitudes,” I was told. In my personal blogging, I can talk about racism – and I often do. As a result, the words flow more easily. I do not stop after each sentence to agonize over what reviewer number 2 will say. And, this newfound ease in my writing extends into my academic writing, as well (even on “perceived” race discrimination in my work on racist discrimination).

Obviously, every sociologists cannot blog, for it may not be a desirable task to add to those overwhelming To-Do lists that actually lead to jobs, tenure, and promotion.  But, I would at least like to encourage those who have been curious or tempted to consider it, even if infrequently or offering a guest blog post to existing blog sites.  There are numerous free blogging sites (e.g., WordPress, Blogspot).  Whether you blog for change, or just for a change of pace, the benefits of doing so may be worth giving up a few minutes to an hour.

References

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2012. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Segura, Denise A. 2012. “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 17, Denver, CO.

Toward A Self-Defined Activist-Academic Career In Sociology

Earlier this year, in the midst of working on my dissertation, I found blogging to be a healthy refuge through the loooooong days.  It provided me a space to write without the persistent editing (and censoring) I must do in traditional academic writing.  So, like Jeff Kosbie, I wrote a blog post on defining my career as a sociologist for myself — specifically a career that will be informed by my passion to make the world a better and just place (see below).  Also, check out Michelle Kweder’s piece, “Why I’m not waiting for tenure to change the world…” 

I hope you’ll be inspired!

____

DangerBeing forced to watch the  world whirl by me as I worked on my dissertation was tortuous: two cases on same-gender marriage heard by the US Supreme Court; horrendous media coverage of an already horrendous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio; a racist attempt at anti-racism in music.  And, just as I came up for air, the good news of finishing was overshadowed by the tragic bombings in Boston.  I tried by best to keep up, but, obviously, I have been way too busy to chime in.

But, one good thing has come out of the selfish time of dissertating — well, besides an awesome dissertation.  My mind has been boiling over with questions about research and academia in general.  In attending college, I learned; but, now (almost) with a PhD in hand, I see how I have learned how to learn.  And, increasingly, that critical eye has turned back on itself, raising questions about knowledge and science.

What is “knowledge”?  What is “science”?  Who defines it?  Who has access to it (and who doesn’t)?  Are the multiple types of knowledge and science — and, if so, are they equally valued in academia and society in general?

On Activism And Academia

As I near the completion of my graduation training, I feel both more qualified as a scholar, but also more empowered in defining my scholarship for myself.  And, I will tell you, the latter sentiment is largely a product of self-teaching, not so much my graduate program.  I alluded to this in my essay on blogging as a form of intellectual activism.

I have received mixed reactions to my essay, “Blogging For (A) Change.”  Initially, many were excited, supportive, and noted that they share my sentiments.  I was not surprised, since these warm responses were coming from my primary, intended audience — fellow sociologists of color and anti-racist sociologists.  (It was an essay for the ASA‘s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities.)  But, given its potential relevance to all scholars, I also provided the essay as a blog post.

Thereafter, I began to receive more cautioned responses.  In addition to private exchanges, I was honored to be the subject of another blog post by Dr. Fabio Rojas: “why activism and academia don’t mix.”  Fabio explains:

Why do we “beat [activism] out’ of graduate students?  The answer, in my view, is that academia and activism are simply different things. Every activity has a bottom line. In politics, it’s votes. In business, it’s money. In religion, it’s souls. Activism is about promoting social change, which is a different bottom line than academia, which is knowledge generation.

Beyond the differences in the goals of academia and activism, Fabio notes that the latter is neither rewarded nor institutionally sanctioned within the former.  And, he clarifies that, ultimately, academics do have a role in social change — the production of knowledge.  A few other sociologists chimed in with comments to emphasize that the commitment of a scholar of color to the advancement of one’s community or people of color in general does not necessarily imply that one is an activist.

Fearing that I may have been mistaken in speaking for other scholars of marginalized backgrounds, I posed the question on Facebook: “Was I wrong in assuming many academics are also activists, even at heart?”  For the most part, my scholarly friends suggested no, with many suggesting that they, too, are activists.  But, there seems to be good reason for the skepticism that some have expressed.

Activism And Academia Can Mix, But…

Let me start by removing the question —  “can one be an academic and an activist?” — from the table.  Yes, it is possible.  There are a handful of people who have suggested that this is the case for them; I strongly suspect that there is at least a sizable minority of scholars for whom this is true.

DuBoisAnd, history suggests that it has been done.  In the last subject of my leisure reading, Stalking the Sociological Imagination, I was reminded that some of the founders of sociology were activists, including W. E. B. DuBois and C. Wright Mills.  (Some who are discussed — for example, Talcott Parsons — were simply the unfortunate subject of McCarthyism despite maintaining a generally non-activist career in sociology.)  Before that, I was reading Dr. Patricia Hill Collins‘s On Intellectual Activism.

But, as Fabio pointed out, activism — here, meaning any efforts toward social justice or social change outside of research, teaching, and (academic) service — is not rewarded in academe.  For most academic jobs, one is hired because of their qualifications in this academic “Holy Trinity” – research, teaching, and service (usually in that order, especially at research intensive schools).  The same goes for tenure, promotion, and most of the other academic opportunities that scholars pursue (e.g., grants, awards).

But, let’s be clear that the sentiment that one shouldn’t be an activist is a separate matter from whether one can be an activist.  In addition, lack of professional reward implies what is valued, not necessarily what is devalued.  You can be a drag queen, baseball player, stamp collector, or whatever other activities you like outside of work even though the academy will not pay you for it.

Activism And Science Can Mix, But…

A second issue is whether activism and science, in particular, mix.  As one of my friends pointed out, the primary concern is that the biases of someone with activist leanings pose a threat to the objectivity required in science.  For example, if a researcher wishes to advocate for the legalization of same-gender marriage, what would she do if her research suggested that children of LGBT parents really do fare worse than those of heterosexual, cisgender parents?  But, a few things need to be unpacked from the science vs. activism dilemma:

First, sorry folks — “objective science” is an oxymoron.  Humans, who are biased in all sorts of ways (e.g., passions, interests, experiences), do science.  Scientists typically study the things they find interesting or about which they are passionate.  Sometimes we get sleepy and make mistakes.

This is where the peer review process comes in.  While it is not perfect. we gain more confidence when new studies have been vetted by other scholars in that subfield.  When done right, a researcher should be well aware of prior research to aid in research design, analyses, and interpretation.  The roles of anonymous reviewers and the journal’s editor(s) are to verify all aspects of the study.  So, if a researcher submitted a study heavily laden with political motivations, with little sound science or major ethical concerns, the reviewers and editor should catch it before it gets published.

A third issue is the failure to acknowledge other problematic biases in research that do little for society as a whole.  In particular, I am referring to the “publish or perish” dictum that places great emphasis on where one’s articles are published, and how many publications one can obtain in a certain period of time.  Not only do I worry that this pressure poses a threat to scholars’ health and well-being, I sometimes fear that scholars’ motivations for prestige and quantity lead them to overlook bigger contributions to theory and to society in general.

Another unspoken consequence of this pressure is the number of studies that have been tweaked or totally abandoned because researchers yield “null findings” — for, it is the significant findings that get you published!  My point here is that science is not perfect, whether activists are doing research or not.

Activism, Academia, And Research Can Mix, And…

phcI argue that it is important to weigh the benefits of the mixing of activism and academia, too, before we jump to a decision on this mixture.  If activism reflects one’s passion for a particular social or political cause, then the work of activist-oriented scholars may benefit academia on the whole because of their unique motivation about the subject and the extra care they take in their work.  In addition, this activist flare may bring a creative lens to one’s scholarship.  Just think of where the social sciences be if Patricia Hill Collins never pursued an academic career, deciding instead to continue working toward educational reform.  Would some other sociologist have applied and extended Kimberlé Crenshaw‘s legal scholarship on intersectionality?

Indeed, for some scholars (myself included), one’s research, teaching, and service are interdependent.  There is a sort of synergy among these three components of our scholarship that is greater than the sum of research + teaching + service.  For example, I experienced a great sense of mutual influence among my research (discrimination and health, LGBT health), teaching, and my work as a co-facilitator for “Boyfriend Lessons” — a series of workshops for bisexual, trans, and gay young men on health and well-being (particularly sexual health).  I brought to the latter insights from others’ and my own research to articulate how the health of queer men is shaped and constrained within a bi-, trans-, and homophobic context.  These insights have also been articulated in my blogging for Kinsey Confidential.  When I taught Sexual Diversity in 2009-2010, I often shared my Kinsey Confidential blog posts, as well as news of current events, to spark discussion and “warm up” the class for the day’s lecture.  My teaching, my service to the community, as well as my personal experiences and interpersonal connections, in turn, have influenced my research.

But, this comes with full knowledge that service that is not serving the academy does not “count” professionally.  And, again, I stress the importance of the peer review process for publishing research.  How I get to the research process in the first place, and what I do with research once it’s published are undeniably influenced by my commitment to social justice.  While it also influences how I do research, I based my decisions and interpretations on existing theory and research, and have my work vetted by other scholars, just like my non-activist colleagues.

Now, About The Elephant In The Room…

I keep harping on the matter of science, despite its imperfections, because there are some ways in which academia and activism do not mix.  Well, there is one big way, and that is when scholars shirk standards of ethical, empirically- and theoretically-based science all together.

The scandal surrounding a 2012 study by University of Texas Austin sociologist, Mark Regnerus, has been at the background throughout my public dialogue on activism and academia.  Since this story first emerged as I entered the job market, I decided to stay silent on the scandal.  And, even once I secured a job, things had grown to a level that I felt it was best to let those protected by tenure to chime in.  But, this case is likely the example of the concern that skeptics have raised.

Besides my fear of professional consequences, a further complication is the concern that calls for academic freedom must acknowledge that the political pendulum swings both ways.  If I wish to have more space for scholars to blog, speak to the media, and use their research for public “good,” I must recognize that some will be doing so for causes that are not my own, or are even counter to mine.  Sure, Regnerus should be free to blog (as he does), no matter his conservative views.

But, this case stands out because there is evidence that he did not draw upon existing theory and research throughout his research design (namely, how he defined “families with lesbian parents“).  Further, to some extent, the peer review process was usurped.  Even if this paper was not used in political efforts to oppose same-gender marriage, this is simply bad science.

The harmful mix of this bad science and his conservative activism is further apparent in the use of this study (which should have been retracted all together) to encourage the US Supreme Court to deny legal recognition of same-gender couples.  Even when the American Sociological Association spoke for the discipline to say there is no empirical evidence to cause concern for the well-being of children of LGBT parents, he co-signed on an amicus brief that said otherwise, largely based on his and another flawed study.  Unfortunately, his singular voice and study were reframed in the actual SCOTUS case as evidence that sociologists have yet to reach a consensus on LGBT families.

Bad science + activism = public harm.  The peer review process should have prevented the study from ever being published.  And, in being responsible scholars, greater effort should have been made to balance supposed mixed findings: 50 studies say X, but, there is one that says not X; here’s why we the latter study is important (or not).  (The ASA brief did this, and further stressed why Regnerus’s study is flawed and irrelevant to LGBT families.  Regnerus et al. did not do this in their brief to the Supreme Court.)

I believe that scholars can be activist-academics or activist-leaning academics or academics from 9-5 and activists on the weekends.  But, this is with the caveat that scholars should be responsible and ethical in how they do research and what they do with it, and how they teach and on what topics, how they serve academic and non-academic communities.

Academia Needs Activism

A final point on the activism-academia mixture is that they need each other.  Activists need the work of researchers to make a case for social change, particularly to change laws and policies.  Researchers, in turn, benefit from their work being carried beyond the pay-walls of academic journals.

But, beyond the notion of active activists and passive academics who simply do science and produce knowledge, academia benefits from activist efforts to bust down barriers to the ivory tower.  Despite his undeniable contributions to sociology, W. E. B. DuBois was not welcomed into the discipline because he was Black.  Eventually fed up with the racism of sociology and the academy in general, he turned more exclusively to activism, co-founding the NAACP.

Recently, I have learned of other marginalized scholars who were either kept out or whose contributions were ignored. Today, I began reading Imagine a World: Pioneering Black Women Sociologists.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of the five Black women sociologists featured in the book: Jacquelyne Johnson Jackson, LaFrancis Rodgers-Rose, Joyce A. Ladner, Doris Wilkinson, and Delores P. Aldridge.  But, considering that the discipline has not been (and still is not) immune to the prejudices and discriminatory practices of the outside world, why would I?

THOMASThe most mind-blowing revelation I have had on this matter is the obvious erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  She co-authored a book with W. I. Thomas, from which “his” famous quote comes: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572).  Yet, Dorothy is rarely given credit for the “W. I. Thomas quote.”  Sadly, what was originally outright sexism that drove the discipline to erase her contribution, my generation of scholars is never taught about her just because our teachers do not know otherwise.

These revelations have fueled my aforementioned interests in the sociology of knowledge and sociology of science.  It is a scary thought that what is taken as Truth is based on science done overwhelmingly by privileged scholars (i.e., middle-class white men) sometimes based on samples that do not reflect members of marginalized groups.  Marginalized scholars are excluded or their work is undermined (sometimes as a result of the exclusion).  For example, there is a slow growth of studies on sexuality published in the top journals in sociology, yet such scholarship published in sexuality journals is regarded as unimportant to mainstream sociology or it is dismissed as “mesearch” if conducted by an LGBT scholar.  (Because the work white middle-class men do, even on themselves, is Objective Science and Truth.)

It is unsurprisingly to me, then, that some minority scholars who were initially interested studying their communities (for their advancement or liberation) end up doing work on the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Patricia Hill Collins) or critiquing research methods (e.g., Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva).

Moving Forward

In sum, I reiterate that it is possible to be an activist and an academic.  If responsible, one’s work in one domain can benefit the other.  And, for some, the synergy among all aspects of your activist and academic selves cannot be compartmentalized into research, teaching, (academic) service, and community service or activism.  The question is not whether you can be.  And, frankly, I think it is time to move beyond asking whether you should be an activist.  Some people just are.

I conclude, then, by suggesting that it is time to recognize the reality of activism in academia, and better appreciate the good it does for it.  Arguably, science would remain limited and exclusive without activist efforts to end discriminatory practices in education.

Moving forward, the question should be how to support students and scholars who are activists at heart (because you never know what impact they can have in society!).  I call for ending the practice of “beating the activist” out of graduate students.  It is no secret that many students come into graduate programs, especially in the social sciences, with the hopes of making a difference.  It is time to support them as they are.

My Kind Of Sociology

And, I am working toward my own self-defined sociology, even after six years of “beatings” in graduate school.  You may have noticed that I renamed my blog, My Sociology.  This was the name of my very first blog.  By the title, I do not imply that I own sociology (though we could debate whether it can be or is owned, and by whom).  Rather, I take the position that there is no one, singular way to do sociology nor to be a sociologist.

Seeing the doubt that students from marginalized backgrounds experience, particularly in graduate school, makes it particularly important to support activist-leaning academics.  A narrow image of successful scholars is purported, and the disconnect between one’s social justice desires and what they learn in graduate school persists.  So, too many — just too many — scholars of color, women scholars, first-generation and working-class scholars doubt themselves, questioning whether an academic career is right for them, and, frankly, whether they are right (read: good enough) for academia.

There are a number of examples of sociologists, whether or not they identify as activists, who serve as inspiring role models, folks who pursue their own kind of sociology:

  • DJ Elaine Harvey and Sociologist Mignon Moore UCLA sociologist Mignon Moore and her partner Elaine Harvey have presented their relationship and love to the world to inspire other LGBT folks (especially those of color) and change minds on same-gender marriage.  Her work on Black lesbian families (including an article in American Sociological Review!) has advanced the intersectionality theoretical framework to (re)visit the intersections among race, gender, and sexuality.  Also, she uses an innovative method (interactions at social events and private parties) for her research.

Harvey and Moore – TIME