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I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school. This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early. Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline. The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.
At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.” My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me. I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months. (Can you imagine it? I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)
“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia
Activism In Childhood And College
My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK. My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].
I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it. Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:
As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.
Graduate School As Trauma
Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.
Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.
When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:
- First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
- Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
- The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
- The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.
Conditionally Accepted in Academia
I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.
Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.
Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.
Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership. Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.
The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism
I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.
Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.
So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.
But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.
Over the summer, I met with a colleague who works at our university’s Center for Civic Engagement. We talked about recent and upcoming vacations, life in the city, and finding community on campus. Eventually, she shifted the conversation to asking how she could better support me as a faculty member, in particular, in helping me to actually utilize the Center’s resources. Since we first met, back when I interviewed for my current position, she has known that I am activist at heart, and wish to engage the campus and local communities in my research and teaching. But, now starting my third year at the university, I give the same excuse for not doing so: fear remains a part of my everyday reality as a tenure-track professor. She understood because I’ve emphasized that I would be slow to adopt community engagement in my work; but, she also asked what, if anything, can we do to change the culture that steers junior faculty away from relevant, accessible, and creative work.
I will acknowledge that my fear and anxiety are on the extreme side relative to the average tenure-track professor. I readily respond to reassuring statements such as, “you’re doing fine,” pointing out, “but, I’m a Black queer tenure-track professor who blogs critically about the academy.” My identities and my politics were known to my department and university upon interviewing and ultimately hiring me. I will admit to a modest amount of paranoia, but I ask that we also be honest that racist and homophobic biases play out in unexpected and subtle ways. (That is, my paranoia isn’t so unreasonable considering there are interpersonal and institutional factors that actually disadvantage me professionally and personally.)
More generally, I bear the burden of fear and doubt because the institution itself does not explicitly reward activism, advocacy, and community engagement. I appreciate informally being told teaching a community-based learning class looks good, or that open access research is the way of the future for scholars. And, at a minimum, there is little sense that such efforts would hurt one professionally (though I remain skeptical when such claims are made regarding activism). But, formally, these initiatives are not valued; they are not explicitly mentioned in the tenure expectations outlined in our faculty handbook, nor is there a longstanding tradition of favorably evaluating community engagement and advocacy. As I told my colleague, it’s great that the Center offers so much to faculty who engage the community in their work — even offering a small stipend to those who go through training on community-based teaching; but, short of the institutions explicit valuing of such efforts (i.e., counting it toward tenure), only a few brave souls will venture into them.
Beyond my frustration with the inconsistency between formal values and informal values, I am annoyed at the obvious contradiction between the university’s claims to promote diversity, accessibility, and community engagement and its actual practices. Like many colleges and universities, my institution has made clear that it wants to change and improve the world; doing so has required changing itself, its mission and values, and its practices. I certainly applaud the university for the changes it has made, especially within the past five years.
But, short of explicitly supporting junior faculty who aim to engage the community, and promote diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, it facilitates a conservatizing effect of the tenure track. Absent of messages to the contrary, the traditional expectations are echoed loudly: “keep your head down”; “don’t rock the boat”; “publish or perish”; “avoid service until after tenure”; “be quiet“; “know your place.” And, besides being apolitical, seen-but-not-heard, publishing machines, junior faculty are pressured to conform to the tried-and-true approach to get tenure. Thus, on one hand, while touting change and all of their efforts to promote it, universities are also producing cohort after cohort of junior scholars who may avoid making change. For many of us, this comes after years of “playing it safe” in graduate school. And, I fear, for many of us, we become so accustomed to conforming and suppressing anything deemed too radical that we simply keep doing so beyond tenure. I’m not entirely optimistic that radical professors “come out of the closet” the day they receive the good news.
I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into the trap of fearful conformity. I came in like a lion, roaring that I would only do the tenure-track my way. But, right on cue, I became a meek lamb, obsessing over self-presentation, avoiding certain forms of service and advocacy that I deemed too political or radical, and fighting so hard to stay visible and relevant to my discipline. Recently, I’ve even grown tired of hearing myself verbalize fear that I’d be denied tenure over what I write on this blog. (And, really, the joke is on me because everyone seems to know who I am and what I value, but the university keeps inviting me back each fall.) But, the conservatizing effect will remain for new faculty until universities explicitly value community service, social justice, and advocacy. Perhaps universities would change a lot faster if they didn’t implicitly pressure faculty to conform and avoid change-making.