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Yesterday, in my upper-level course on gender and sexualities, my students and I discussed the life-long process of coming out as LGBT. In essence, because of heterocentricism (the assumption that everyone is heterosexual) and, what we can call ciscentricism (the assumption that everyone is cisgender), LGBT people are forced to out themselves to each new person they meet (if they decide not to be presumed cisgender and heterosexual). As one student pointed out, that, of course, presumes one is closely aligned with the stereotypical images of heterosexual and cisgender people; any displays of gender non-conformity may lead one to have their sexual and/or gender identities questioned. Still, to some degree, we believe there is some choice in the matter, whether to out oneself or confirm others’ suspicions.
In this conversation, I chose not to out myself — a position I usually take until the end of the semester (once course evaluations are in). I have mentioned “my partner” to two students, and, aside from wearing suits, I rarely obsess over presenting myself as hypermasculine (or even masculine, for that matter). So, my students may already have suspicions about me, at least regarding my sexual identity.
And, though quite relevant, I had not mentioned an incident that occurred immediately before class. I briefly returned home to regroup before the late, 4:30pm-7pm class. As scheduled, our front and back doors had been replaced. The workers had thrown our door mats aside, failed to return moved furniture to their original location, and left sawdust on the floor and some furniture. The blinds from the original back door sat on our kitchen table. And, a bag of used doorknobs sat on our front porch. This was just shitty, inconsiderate work.
The worst sign of their inconsiderate presence was this:
Ugh. This pamphlet from a Billy Graham affiliated church in the city was left on our kitchen table. If this was “innocent” proselytizing, it was inappropriate. But, with a number of pictures of my partner and me up in the kitchen and other rooms, I suspect this was something more. An unknown number of strangers entered our house and decided we needed Jesus in our lives. As gay people, this was a minor, yet symbolic assault from strangers who decided we were immoral because of our sexual orientations and our relationship.
Connecting this back to my class’s discussion, I realized that I could be in the closet in every aspect of my life: at work, with friends, doctor‘s visits, etc. No one but my partner and I would know we identify as gay and that we are in a long-term, committed, loving relationship. But, if we lived together, as we do, at some point the apartment complex may know (or suspect), and the service people who enter our homes would figure it out. To these strangers, we would have no choice about being out, unless we went to the lengths of hiding any signs of a relationship, or even living apart. There is a base level of outness that life demands if you want any semblance of a full life as a queer person.
As I threw clean dishes into the cabinets later in the evening, I began to realize just how upsetting this experience was. Simply put, I feel violated. Strangers were given access to my personal home, and judged me, and had the audacity to leave behind their propaganda just to let me know what they thought. Even in my own fucking home I am not free from homophobia. It is bad enough that I bring the stress of bigotry home, in its wear on my health, in the suits I quickly strip off when I get home like taking off a costume, and in the taxes I pay for my partner to receive benefits in a state that ignores our relationship. But, this incident pushed beyond that. I came home to a visible reminder that strangers think I am immoral. Fuckers.
Before I embarked on the academic job market, I had heard a few references to job market PTSD. I think that characterization, as a form of trauma, is fair, and the warnings that I might experience it myself were accurate. After securing a job — the first job for which I ever interviewed, on my first tour on the job market — I did feel a sense of survivor’s guilt, seeing some friends going on their second year of the job-search and others desperately hoping for a job that never came. Even today, I still hear, “wow, you’re lucky!”, but have learned to understand that more as a statement about the person saying it, or the general state of the job market. There is no sense in feeling bad about getting a job!
Then, upon completing the dissertation, there was a sudden wave of depression — what others have called post-dissertation depression. After devoting an entire year to one project, the biggest project of my life thus far, suddenly it was over; and, since I probably have not properly celebrated my successes still to this day, I was vulnerable to the creeping underwhelming feeling upon finishing.
Grad School Garbage
These appear to be pretty common forms of distress (maybe even signs of mental illness, if severe and chronic) toward the end of graduate school and then some time thereafter. I have to wonder whether scholars on the margins are at greater risk, or experience a more severe form of them.
I have officially started my tenure-track position now, which comes with a sense of relief. I also feel the slow (re)blossoming of my sense of self-worth. (Deciding to do the tenure-track my way helps tremendously.) For the most part, I do not think about my days of graduate school, unless it is to relay advice to a current graduate student. But, I have noticed that it won’t require pulling teeth to get me to go into a rant about how awful the experience was at times. And, a few minutes in, and I feel just as crappy as I did when I actually was in graduate school.
Why? I am dubbing this phenomenon “grad school garbage.” I do not think distress, or depression, or PTSD fully describe the resentment, regret, and anger — as well as those feelings of anxiety, trauma, and depression — I harbored throughout my graduate training. And, because few options exist to readily express these feelings, I am still carrying some of this “baggage” today. Fortunately, I can already feel that I have disposed of some of it.
Sources Of Grad School Garbage
Let me note the standard line — graduate school is tough for all. There, I said it. Now, let me state the obvious for graduate students of marginalized backgrounds — grad school is particularly tough for us. Though our US-born heterosexual middle-class white male colleagues without disabilities also experience “imposter syndrome” in their first year of graduate school, it usually dissipates soon after. I am a first-year tenure-track faculty member feeling a little bit of a rough adjustment from deferential grad student to equal colleague (especially with academics of privileged backgrounds). For us, imposter syndrome may be a lifelong disease.
One source of grad school garbage is constantly facing microaggressions and, in some cases, major forms of discrimination and harassment. Those are experiences with few options for release, recourse, and compensation. Who could my (Black) friends tell that a (white) professor petted their hair with great curiosity as though they were zoo exhibits? Or, being told by a colleague “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”, thus reinforcing the stereotype that HIV is a “gay disease”? Typically, we tell friends of similar backgrounds, and try to avoid the “usual suspects” of such assaults to our identities, communities, and worthiness. But, the scars still remain.
Another source that I constantly wrestle with is the contradictory nature of bigotry in academe. In one breath, we advocate for diversity and inclusion, and many scholars directly investigate inequality in their scholarship and teaching. But, in another breath, you are being told “man up!” or “don’t do that — that’s girly”, told fellowships for minority students are forms of “reverse racism,” and assured that homophobia does not exist in academia. I found it more damaging and upsetting to receive these conflicting messages. The greatest source of this appeared to be the supposed inclusion of marginalized people at the expense of marginalized subjectivity. (This is the major theme of this blog!) “We can accept you as a queer scholar, but” … “stop using queer theory in your work” or “studying gay people isn’t interesting in its own right.”
A final source (of course, there are more than I write about here), gets at the heart of the professional socialization of graduate school. First, note the language that is used. Graduate training is explicitly defined as a form of (re)socialization. It is not enough to master the skill of scholarship; we must become scholars. And, given the history and contemporary significance of exclusion and devaluing marginalized communities and perspectives, this poses a direct threat for scholars of marginalized backgrounds. There is pressure to suppress our identities, our community memberships, our critical perspectives, and our values to take on those of the academy. The better you become at convincing others that “you’re black, but won’t make an issue of it”, the more successful you can become within the mainstream.
Unfortunately, for some, this means losing ties with one’s community of origin. We run the risk of becoming alienated from our communities, yet we are never fully accepted into the academic community. I have heard from working-class friends that visits home increasingly include a sense of foreignness — “who are these people?” “Who have I become?” And, this also reflects the experiences of scholars of color (Michelle Obama’s honors thesis speaks to this for Black students who attend elite Historically White Universities and Colleges [HWCUs]). Ironically, many of these folks came to academia to improve and empower the very communities that they now feel disconnected from.
Disposing Of The Garbage
Wow, what a difference a day makes! I wrote the above text this morning — and now, I am writing this section at the end of the day. I feel an unexpected, great sense of relief. This is probably the first time in a long time that I have felt free of the misery that I grew accustomed to in graduate school. So, I suppose time and distance are great sources of relinquishing the garbage one collects in graduate school. I feel freer and in more control of where my career heads now.
I suppose this feeling of liberation is a confluence of factors: a new, high level of respect from others as Doctor Grollman; having publicly declared my plan to do tenure my way; having pushed for a job that will support me in many ways; having physically, socially, and emotionally left graduate school; and starting this blog to speak openly about the injustice and marginalization faced by many scholars. This all gives academic freedom a much broader meaning!
So, let’s see how things transpire over my first few years on the tenure-track. I am quite hopeful that having carved out what is best for me will minimize much of the garbage-producing aspects of an academic career. Stay tuned.
The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone. And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality. But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem. The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership. So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.
Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School
Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender. In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings. Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color. But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day. The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time. One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings. And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.
And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty? One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color. These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity. However, you may be trading comfort for marketability. A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs. Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.
Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring
Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. But, problems remain. Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.
For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women). And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.
When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.
And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:
[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.
So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).
But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices. Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions. Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.
Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion
Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.
The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it. During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure. Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”
I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.
Racist And Sexist Climate
Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities. It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.
[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.
In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.” For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty. And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.
No Better, No Worse
I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities. Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy. Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.
Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities. Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation. While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them. But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities. Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.
I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion. This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out. For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates. There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs. I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down. My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.
Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in. Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond). These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down. And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.
The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.
In the last couple of weeks, I have been seeing tweets and Facebook posts about academic conferences, including some great advice for surviving these events. From this buzz, I have been reminded of two things. First, despite the negative aspects of my own graduate training (no program is perfect), I sometimes forget that I am fortunate because of the strength of my training relative to others’. Some academics are given incomplete (if any) training for preparing for, surviving, and benefiting from conferences. And, related to that, that many academics are kind enough to publicly share such advice, rather than harboring it for their own and their colleagues’/students’ advancement.
Second, much of my networks are made up of academics! In between FB posts about babies, jury duty, cats, upcoming weddings, and gripes about work, I see my fellow academics getting excited about upcoming conferences, making plans to meet, and asking for preparation tips. Indeed, the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) kicks off at the end of next week in New York City.
Enough babbling. Below, I offer links to advice that other academics have already provided. And, in this spirit of this site’s purpose, I try to tailor the advice for scholars on the margins of academia.
- Check out Dr. Wendy M. Christensen’s advice for attending academic conferences (without losing your mind!).
- Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) prepared a document containing advice for attending conferences [click here for PDF]. It includes seeking funding for travel and lodging, tips for preparing for and maximizing one’s time at the conference, advice for presentations and networking, etc.
- Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza (a sociologist) has offered advice for giving a great presentation at a conference. You may also find this and this useful. Once you return from your conference, take some time to look through her entire blog, Get a Life, PhD; it’s full of advice for being a productive scholar while maintaining your health and happiness.
- You may also find, “The Academic Conference: How to Stand Out From the Crowd” useful.
- Dr. Karen Kelsky (an anthropologist) of The Professor Is In has offered extensive advice for attending conferences, as well as great tips for the job market and other concerns of graduate students. Bookmark her blog right now.
- Dr. Dan Ryan (a sociologist) shared with me some advice he published in The Pacific Sociologist newsletter (of the Pacific Sociological Association) in September 1998: “How to Enjoy a Convention.”
- “10 Networking Tips for Academics Who Hate Networking.”
- Advice for your first conference
Survival Tips For Scholars On The Margins
While the above advice is useful for any and all academics, we must be honest about the additional concerns and burdens of conferences (and interacting with other scholars in general) for scholars on the margins. Though we are told that the “imposter syndrome” fades by the end of your first year of graduate school, we are not told that marginalized scholars may experience it and general self-doubt well through their training and even into the tenure-track. It continues for many because our competence and authority are regularly questioned by our colleagues and students.
I would say the best kind of advice, at least that I have received, has been placed in the context of my own life. For example, I devoured every word of The Black Academic’s Guides to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy because it presented general advice about being productive and staying healthy, but with explicit consideration of the additional burdens that scholars of color face. (In addition to the book, I strongly recommend joining the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity. You’re welcome.) The American Psychological Association’s Surviving and Thriving in Academia also looks useful, including the rarely discussed “what now?” if one is denied tenure (particularly for women and people of color). We also need to be honest about the dilemmas trans*, queer, bisexual, lesbian, and gay scholars face, particularly around pressure (from the department, institution, or society in general) to hide one’s gender and/or sexual identity.
Ideally, advice for scholars on the margins of academe (and society in general) are tailored to consider these contexts. Academia is not immune to the social forces of the world beyond the ivory tower. Yet, somehow we forget that we, too, are shaped and constrained by the society we live in, and end up giving generic advice to one another and holding each other to identical standards of productivity. Tailored advice includes acknowledging the aforementioned realities — the external burdens of microaggressions, harassment, stereotyping, disrespect and the internal burdens of self-doubt, mental health problems, and fear — and ways to overcome them. It includes taking care of yourself and seeking support from others who deal with similar challenges.
And, back to more specific practical advice, you may need to do your homework about meeting your needs during the conference. Ideally, conferences offer child-care, some aid to those who are low-income or employed, accessible spaces and events, and gender-neutral bathrooms. You may have to ask other scholars about these services (or making due without them if not available). Also, schedule in some time to do things to recharge yourself: breaks throughout the day; lunches/dinners with friends; receptions for people from your own background or with similar politics to balance the mixed/”mainstream” events; and, exploring the host city a bit.
What strategies have worked for you?