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One Reason To Consider Saying “Yes” To Service

Image Source: HuffPo (http://huff.to/MwaapI)

There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student.  As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way.  And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia.  (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.)  I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.

But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever?  Here, I do not mean  — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews.  What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups?  Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?

Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.”   At least three reasons.  And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”

Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)

I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work.  Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV.  I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world.  But, even my weekends are spent recovering.

Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service.  I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers.  I miss talking about something other than academia.  (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.)  I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.

Scholarship In Action

Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research.  But, our students are a select (privileged) group.  And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated.  And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom.  Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful.  But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms.  Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!

Feel Appreciated And Respected

Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place.  “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me?  there must be a mistake!”

An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class.  The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia.  That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception.  Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations?  Wow!

By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations.  That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing.  Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place!  People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined).  I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute.  I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals.  At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives.  I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities.  Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist.  Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.

Conformity is overrated.  And it is bad for science and higher education.

Blogging As Autobiography

autobiography

Ok, so I won’t add Photoshop to my list of “mad skillz.”

I have participated in some sort of semi- or totally public form of social media since my early adolescence.  First, it was Myspace, Livejournal, and the discussion boards of a group for multiracial/multiethnic people.  I joined Facebook the year it was created.  I had taken to more formal social justice-related writing through Letters to the Editor and op-eds for my college newspaper.  By graduate school, I went totally “public,” with my first blog that was neither limited in access to my friends nor in its content.  So, now inching closer to age 30 by the day, I have been “at it” in this business, if you will, for over 15 years.  So, now, being asked by others about my decision to “self-disclose,” or being “so out there,” I hesitate before responding, “well, I guess most people don’t.”

These days, publicly writing about my personal and professional life feel like a mundane, everyday part of my life.  No matter my scholarly training, I have only one frame of reference for all things: my own.  Sure, I can readily cite what is known from research in my areas of expertise, or figure out how to find it in other areas.  But, the only solid perspective which I can readily access is my own view of the world.  What separates me from “most people,” though, seems to be  my willingness to do so publicly.

Before I get into why, I should take a moment to avoid giving myself too much credit.  There is never a time I write without intensely reflecting on whether I am in a position to even speak about a certain subject, and the consequences of deciding to speak publicly.  When I went on the academic job market, I combed my personal blog for any posts I deemed too radical or militant or even too personal.  Though I (anonymously) started Conditionally Accepted, I quickly deleted it, hoping it was a temporary job market-related need for release.  (I am so glad I decided to revive that impulse!)  And, there are posts on both this blog and my personal blog that I deleted before ever posting, or after they were posted because of (real or perceived) backlash.  Fortunately, with each time I write something personal or critical, even radical, and the sky stays intact (and I stay employed), I become braver the next time I chose to speak out.  It is far from a perfectly linear development, but I can see a return to my braver, more outspoken self that existed before graduate school.

Now, on to the why — why self-disclose, so personally, so publicly, and so often?  Well, the quick self-serving reason is the release I feel upon writing about a troubling (or even exciting) experience.  After few years of living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I have found getting shit bothersome stuff out of my mind and off of my chest is better than letting it eat at either or both.  And, yes, some things are shared only with the pages of journal on my nightstand.  Beyond that, sharing my own experiences is just one part of my larger project of intellectual activism.  I work to make my own scholarship — both teaching and research — accessible beyond the paywalls of college classrooms and academic journals.  Though I sometimes wrestle with feeling selfish for creating an academic blog for academics, I remind myself that this blog is, indeed, a form of intellectual activism.  It is my hope to make transparent the social problems that, too, plague academia; it turns out the ivory tower isn’t so immune to oppression, inequality, exclusion, prejudice, and exploitation after all.

In graduate school, I did not see myself reflected in course material nor in the professional socialization I underwent.  I had faculty with overlapping marginalized identities, but no one who shared my particular social location.  Though I bonded with other, similarly marginalized students, we did not always share our pain because it is tempting to hide it, or we did not want to burden others as they dealt with their own demons.  Also, as we were essentially in the same stage in our careers, we had little advice to offer to each other because we were still in the thick of it.  I did not have access to the stories of people like me — only what I assumed was true for most students and what my professors told me should be my experience and values.  Who knew I did not have to succumb to the pressure of taking a job at a Research I institution?  Who knew I could resist that pressure to actually feel happy, have a sense of balance, and not become “irrelevant” in my disciple as I was warned.

The good and the bad of creating Conditionally Accepted, now regularly telling my own story, is that I am one of few voices.  I am slowly discovering others who have been telling their stories for years now.  But, many others are looking to me to tell mine.  On top of the intense criticism one may receive in daring to “write in public,” some institutions and organizations have turned ignoring public scholarship into penalizing it.  And, in general, “it does not count.”  That all fuels a heightened sense of fear and the resultant self-silencing.  I have been commended by senior colleagues for my bravery — even requests to be cited for or speak about professional development.  (Y’all know I’m still suffering from my own impostor syndrome, right?!)

So, now a year after I secretly created this blog and then deleted it, I feel I have been assigned the task of telling my story — at least in hopes that others will be inspired to tell their own.  I am resisting the internal and external pressures to be silent, reclaiming power by pushing my story into the universe.  I hope for a day that scholars like me stop feeling alone, stop feeling that there is only one academic narrative to which they compare their own experiences and values, and stop feeling silenced and invisible.  In the mean time, stay tuned and consider contributing your own story!

Professors Feel Pain, Too

Last month, I attended a teaching workshop on navigating difficult classroom discussions, with a focus on racist microaggressions that may occur during class.  This was a great workshop; it reignited my passion for teaching by reminding me why I became an educator in the first place.  Despite lawsuits against professors who dare to talk about structural racism and attempted forced retirements against those who talk about sex work, I stand firmly by the position that a professor’s job is to talk about uncomfortable, controversial subjects.  A class is incomplete if its students have not been pushed outside of their comfort zones and/or had their initial ways of thinking challenged.

The workshop left only one issue unaddressed that I sorely wanted to discuss: acknowledging and navigating the instructor’s pain.  This is not really a complaint.  Recognizing and addressing racist and other microaggressions in one’s classroom deserves more than the three hours we devoted to it that morning.  So, too, in my opinion, does recognizing and addressing what instructor’s experience and bring to the classroom.  As I noted even in my introduction at the start of the workshop, I want to know how I can stop shutting down when something offensive is said in the classroom.  Beyond that, I struggle with carrying my own pain from experiencing the very things I bring up in class.

Let me give two examples of what I mean:

  • About half way through my research methods course last semester, a white student dismissed the conclusions drawn from a experiments that suggested the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination — even among young children.  I acknowledge that I chose experiments that were not without their limitations, but had the benefit of a video about them.  But, I could tell that underlying this student’s comment was not methodological concerns; rather, he seemed set in believing these experiments could not possibly demonstrate the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination.  I was neither emotionally nor pedagogically prepared to have the “does racism exist?” conversation, so I pointed out the inaccuracies in his own comment, and acknowledged the limitations of the studies, and moved on.  It was a course on methods, not racism, after all; but, how I could have better handled this kind of concern, or even challenge, lingers in my mind still.
  • On the very day I taught on homophobia in my gender and sexualities course last semester, a construction crew member left a religious pamphlet in my apartment.  I suspect this was upon seeing pictures of my partner and me while they entered to install a new door.  Prejudice or shoddy work, they also threw our doormats about and left a lot of sawdust on the carpet and furniture.  I went to class that day feeling violated.  A stranger, whose identity, appearance, and politics were unknown to me, entered my home and left a message to me about their religious beliefs.  This would have been a wonderful experience to bring up in that evening’s class.  But, I knew not to for fear that I might become upset or even start crying.  I had not yet processed the experience and, frankly, patched up the wound it reopened.

My pedagogical approach embraces one’s personal experiences directly, rather than treating them as suspect (i.e., a threat to objectivity) or irrelevant.  I ask students to drawn on their own lives to support comments made in class; also, my assignments require students to connect course material to their personal experiences.  I figure that students will not retain material as well if you ask them to prioritize it over all of their year’s of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions; at best, they may set course material beside this preexisting mental content and, sometimes, easily slip back into old ways of thinking.  Also, I aim to contribute to my students’ consciousness-raising by asking them to reexamine their own lives and past experiences through the critical lenses taught in my courses.  So, I willingly work at breaking the barrier between intellectual and personal imposed by much of academia, and intentionally bring up controversial and difficult subjects during class.

I certainly agree with other instructors’ sentiment that I am not a counselor.  I now make clear that the classroom should be treated as a safe, nonjudgmental place, but it is not designed as a group therapy session.  I contribute to maintaining this kind of space by (re)directing the conversation back to course material, and avoiding therapy-style questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “and, then what did you say to him?”  My approach is a work in progress, and necessarily shifts or expands each time I teach a new course.  But, I generally feel comfortable in asking my students to reflect on their lives, even pain related to the issues we discuss.

Professor’s Feel Pain, Too

But, what about my experiences and pain?  I certainly do not make the class about me.  (Hello, still struggling with self-doubt and better self-promotion here!)   Yet, I do make a point to divulge some to reciprocate in asking my students to open up to me (and the entire class, if they wish).  At a minimum, I save the last day for lingering questions students have for me (asked anonymously), which usually covers “what’s your race?”, “what’s your sexual orientation?”, “where did you go to graduate school/college?”, “why did you become a sociologist?”  Funny, though, I was surprised to find that I received only 2 or 3 questions in my research methods course — the one where I had already been the least open as a human; but, everyone asks a question in my gender and sexualities courses.  After gauging the class in general, and the conversation that day, I sometimes interject with a personal thought or experience if it will offer a different perspective than what was already offered.

I have noticed, though, that my willingness to share surrounds “safe” experiences and thoughts.  That is, they are not too controversial, thus avoiding radically changing how my students’ views of me thus far.  But, I also mean that I have efficiently processed it.  I either no longer experience pain in the case of negative occurrences or am sufficiently suppressing how I feel just enough to share with a group of semi-strangers.  But, I do not simply have a painful past.  As a fat Black queer man, there is a very good chance I experienced something related to weight, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. that day.

Besides carrying the pain, especially for experiencing discrimination or microaggressions, it is hard to completely throw out the myth of objectivity in the classroom.  Implicitly, I cave to the false security of being objective by withholding my own experiences and thoughts from classroom discussion.  When my students talked about their experiences with homophobia — as targets or witnesses — I refrained from saying, “hell, I just experienced homophobia right before class!” because the conversation was not supposed to be about me.  This is not necessary, and is unfair to my students who decide to share.  But, it is hard to quickly break from the way that most of us are taught (if at all) to teach.

“Objectivity,” Or Suppressing Pain

The myth of objectivity in teaching is also unfair to me because it also plays out as suppression — a form of emotional labor.  Being “objective” about racism, for example, is not simply keeping my thoughts to myself to, instead, prioritize my students’ thoughts; it is having to keep a lid on years’ worth of my own pain and anger.  It is trying to be respectful and remained engaged as I hear white students underestimate the pervasiveness of racism while my mind starts to drift to the “nigger joke” that ruined my Christmas night.

So, in recognizing what this is — that I carry pain — it is now my job to figure out what to do with it.  Bringing it to class puts me at risk for having this pain shutting me down or constraining my ability to effectively run classroom discussion.  So long as I willingly teach on subjects like racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., I must work at emotionally and pedagogically preparing to talk about things that will always hit close to home.  Sadly, I need to prepare, albeit it to a lesser extent, even when I teach “safe” and “generic” topics because it would be foolish to expect the classroom to be devoid of prejudice and discrimination.

But, this points to one manifestation of inequality in academia that I will forever resent: that marginalized scholars are tasked with this kind of emotional labor before (and likely after) class, on top of additional concerns to navigating during class.  This additional burden of labor related to teaching is exacerbated because our privileged colleagues are less likely to pursue these subjects in class anyhow.  And, worse, they are (at times) one source of the pain we carry around with us.

Make 2014 The Year Of Self-Promotion!

Sonya’s latest blog post on self-censorship has stuck with me since.  Specifically, she pondered why she fails to include her own published research as assigned readings in her classes — classes that overlap with her research!  I already know why I do not include my (admittedly) few articles.  I do not want to appear arrogant before my students.  And, I would like to think that the readings, which often reflect others’ voices in the form of narrative or autobiography, provide other perspectives that complement that which I provide in lecture.

But, Sonya’s post also forced me to acknowledge that I fail to include my own expertise because I do not feel like an expert.  Sure, exclusively assigning your book as the class’s text might seem suspect.  But, as Sonya pointed out, our students may be wondering what kind of research we do.  And, more importantly, besides preparing lectures, what do we really know and think about the topic?  (I can vouch for students wanting to know — but what do you think?)

On Self-Promotion For Marginalized Scholars

I will let you in on a little secret.  Self-promotion is a required skill in academia — and, other professions, too!  One’s status and individual success serve as two primary measure of one’s professional worth.  If, like me, you have made peace with not participating in the status game, you should probably also make peace with being dismissed by those who do.  Unfortunately, it seems impossible to actually survive professionally, let alone excel, without the occasional self-promotion.  And, a scholar’s own efforts to promote her work (and herself) influence the efforts of her network to promote her.  (Are we ready to stop pretending academia is a meritocratic profession?)

What is more unfortunate, though, is that many marginalized scholars struggle to self-promote.  At the starting point, many of us are simply trying to overcome impostor syndrome — the sense that we are not good enough, that we do not belong, that we will be discovered as frauds and forced to leave.  So, a rather low-level of self-promotion would just get us to the point of feeling like we even belong in the first place.  The other constraint, in my mind, is a fear of being dismissed as arrogant.  Women, for example, face gendered expectations regarding professional (and really any) interactions that place a low threshold for too much self-promotion — we all know what women are called when they “forget their place.”

Since I cannot escape my mathematic roots (science and technology high school program to almost majoring in math in college), something like the following hypothetical graph comes to mind:

Self-Promotion

Above, I have envisioned a range of visibility in academia — one’s department, university, subfield, and/or discipline — from “who the hell is that?” to “everyone knows that pompous asshole.”  (Note, again, these are make-believe data!)  Accounting for internal factors (self-doubt, impostor syndrome, alienation) and external factors (prejudice and discrimination), I have placed marginalized scholars at a negligible level of self-promotion in the negative.  You know — feeling and actually being invisible.  Even at low, medium, and high levels of self-promotion, I suggest that these factors still create a disparity between privileged and marginalized scholars.  And, you can probably switch out visibility for any other valued attribute or desired outcome in academia (e.g., authority, respect, status).

My point here is to emphasize that we (marginalized scholars) cannot afford not to self-promote.  But, many of us experience fear in doing so because we worry about being labeled arrogant — maybe even “uppity.”  So, we uncomfortably bob between invisibility and just enough visibility to survive in our profession.  We fear just being present in academia is already asking a lot, so we avoid rocking the boat politically or through critical scholarship.  Maybe we will feel safer and more confident once we get that job, tenure, that promotion, that publication, that… whatever validation from our profession.  But, the thing is, it takes self-promotion to achieve them!

In 2014, Promote Yourself

Sure, as I write this, I feel the self-doubt creeping in.  I want to preface this by noting my lack of experience, my young age, maybe even my naivete.  No.  If this is a crock of shit, it is a crock you sought out on this blog, having read all the way to this point in the post.  I am not going to apologize for encouraging my colleagues to be better in their jobs, to feel better in their jobs.  You’re welcome.  But, I digress.

I like to set resolutions for the new year.  And, every three years, I set 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals, to which I return to see what I have accomplished.  One of them for 2014 (and beyond) will be to become more comfortable with self-promotion.

Here are the specifics I have in mind:

  • Set as a rule the inclusion of one of my publications as an assigned reading in my courses — if it is relevant, if it is an exemplar article or at least a useful example on a topic.  I set as my arrogance threshold any effort to alter the overall course organization or content just to include my own research.  That is, I refuse to start with my research as the foundation of a course, and then build around it.  Rather, if there is space, I will own that my expertise is relevant.  Letting self-doubt and impostor syndrome win is both bad science and bad pedagogy!
  • Stop second-guessing why I receive invitations to speak at conferences, on panels, to give talks, to submit articles, etc.  As status-driven as our profession is, I am lucky to receive these acknowledgements of my good work.  I should think about the number of invitations I don’t receive because others have dismissed me because of my personal identities, or presumed inexperience, or outspokenness, or the subject of my research, or my job at a liberal arts university.
  • Stop living in fear for the work that I do (including this blog!).  Clearly, I am doing something right (i.e., I still have a job!).  And, I pride myself on being just as safe, reflective, and cautious as I am provocative and outspoken.  I am hardly reckless (here, rejecting conformity, silence, and assimilation as “safe” approaches).  So, it is time to live up to my declaration to work toward tenure without losing my soul.
  • Continue to promote the excellent work of my colleagues and fellow marginalized scholars.  Sure, a part of me does this because I hope for that favor in kind.  Selfishness aside, I advocate for making academia a supportive community; in my mind, this includes regularly supporting and promoting others.  While individualism and competition may effectively motivate scholars, it also seems to hinder knowledge production because scholars are not building together.  So, specifically, I will continue to cite and promote the great work of people in my network — publications, pedagogical tools, blog posts, and other intellectual efforts.
  • Celebrate my accomplishments, big and small.  As I noted in an earlier blog post, one factor that has been driving my impostor syndrome in 2013 is failing to properly celebrate all that I had accomplished.  I finished my dissertation, earned my PhD, started my tenure-track job, and sent out a few articles for review (including one which was conditionally accepted).  Besides a dinner with my family after graduation in May, I never took the time to celebrate.  How can you feel accomplished, successful, efficacious, and powerful if you fail to reflect on what you have achieved?  So, no more of that.  I allowed the taken-for-grantedness of academic milestones push me past celebrating every little victory, like surviving the semester, submitting a paper for review, receiving an invitation to speak.  I can scale back on the celebrations when they become too frequent!

So, who’s with me for a little self-promotion in 2014?

Being A New Professor Sucks (Sometimes)

I started my tenure-track faculty position at a small, liberal arts college in the South this academic year.  Midway through this first semester, I finally accepted that the primary challenge of one’s first year is simply to survive.  All at once, I am adjusting to a new job, in a new department, at a new university, at a new type of university (i.e., liberal arts), taking on a new status, and new classes with a new student body.  Well, damn.  That is a lot all at once.  Much of this adjustment is what anyone faces in moving and starting a new job; but, I also have the background concerns about tenure.

I am simultaneously grateful and resentful for some things that are in place for new professors, considering the aforementioned period of adjustment:

  • I teach a 3/2 course load, which has been made 2 your first semester and 3 your second.  I am certainly grateful to ease into two classes since I taught only one at a time as a graduate student.  But, now, I have an even busier and more demanding spring semester ahead of me.
  • First-year faculty are not given advising responsibilities until their second year.  They will also be slowly drawn into various forms of departmental and university service.  I really, really appreciate being protected from these very time-consuming, energy-draining, and sometimes political activities.  But, I sometimes feel like an afterthought, too fragile and overwhelmed to do anything beyond teaching and research.
  • Socially, other faculty tend to avoid me presumably to let me get settled without interference.  When I initiate interactions, particularly with colleagues I meet for the first time or do not know well, they tend to ask just about how well I am surviving.  I could be imagining it, but it seems like their voices go up a few octaves, as though they are speaking to a child.  “And, how’s your first semester, little guy?  A-goo-by-ga-ga look at the little professor growing up so fast!”  Talk to me about my research, my five-year plan toward tenure, my thoughts on improving higher education, or something of significance beyond my first year.  But, sadly, this limited conversation is appropriate because all I can think about is surviving this semester.  So, while I resent it, I appreciate not having more expected of me.
  • I prefer to don an air of experience, particularly with students.  A professor never tells his age in academic years.  That is, even when I was a third-year graduate student, teaching for the first time, I never told my students I was a novice instructor.  But, I could not maintain that illusion for long as a professor, having to ask my students where the nearest bathroom is.  They all know that I am new.  And, the joke is likely on me because there is no institutional record of me prior to this year, so they may have already known.  And, aside from a few skirmishes that I actually think reflect my young age more than how long I have been at this institution, the students do not seem to mind either way.
  • I love the praise I receive when I exceed others’ expectations.  “You did that in your first semester!?”  Call it overcompensation if you will, but it is a relief to hear.  But, I also realize that this reflects a rather low set of expectations.  Anything beyond survival is seen as a major feat for a new professor.  Survival?  That’s it?!  I have been surviving my whole life; the alternative is death.  I suppose I should cherish these expectations now with the almost explicit message that “your first year doesn’t count.”

I suppose at the root of this is my own impatience and self-doubt.  I do not like appearing new (read: inexperienced) because I am afraid of not being taken seriously, or being challenged, or being dismissed.  I do not like feeling new (read: inexperienced) because I face too many external challenges to my credibility and authority.  On my absolute worst days, I stopped seeing impostor syndrome and started feeling unqualified and incompetent in a real way.  So, it takes a lot more self-talk to remind myself that I am qualified, but of course have room to improve, become more experienced and wiser.

I know it will get easier over time.  And, eventually I will no longer be the new girl in town.