Home » Posts tagged 'Sexism'
Tag Archives: Sexism
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!
Being 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.
And, 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…
I 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?
The 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).
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.
- Dr. CJ Pascoe, best known currently for her book Dude You’re a Fag, serves on the research advisory board for Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying organization, Born This Way Foundation. She co-edits a blog, Social (In)Queery, on gender and sexuality research.
- The entire Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) organization.
- Northwestern sociologist Aldon Morris, who has propelled the DuBoisian tradition in sociology.
- The entire Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) organization.
- Monique Carry, a dear friend, who brings together research, education, and activism in her advocacy for Black LGBT youth. She co-founded the All My Children Project, and works as a behavioral scientist for the CDC.
- Patricia Yancey Martin, who has advanced a structural conceptualization of sexism.
- Sociologist and filmmaker Dr. Tukufu Zuberi.
- ASA President Cecelia Ridgeway, who has developed an interesting approach to understand how interpersonal interactions create, reinforce, and recreate macro systems of inequality.
- Tressie McMillan Cottom. Awesome. Badass blogger. Does some great work on the privatization of higher education.
- Sociologists Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp, who run and edit the popular Sociological Images blog.
- Minnesota sociologist Christopher Uggen, whose research, teaching, blogging, and community outreach aim to make knowledge about crime and punishment, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and health publicly accessible. He was one of the founding co-editors of Contexts magazine, and now edits The Society Pages.
I swore I would stay politically neutral and as as silent as possible during the first year (maybe longer) on the tenure-track. (Well, kinda.) I am brazen enough to come to the job with specific plans for change, but wise enough to know that I need to learn the political climate first. But, damn if it doesn’t seem impossible to avoid political battles despite your best efforts.
With one political landmine that I accidentally stepped on, I alluded that it was not clear that an invited speaker holds favorable views about one of several marginalized communities about which she spoke. The only defense against that allegation I heard was 1) her work was not really about those communities (which made it worse, in my opinion) and 2) “I’m sure she’s not intolerant.”
There… that right there! I have heard on many occasions the hopeful assertion that “I’m sure she isn’t racist” or “he probably didn’t mean it that way (i.e., sexist). It seems our default assumption is that people are good at heart and don’t have a “racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. bone in their body.” Someone has to be undeniably prejudiced and frequently practice discrimination in order to be beyond our threshold of acceptable bigotry.
Well, as a marginalized person, I have to say that assuming every new person I meet is not — specifically, in my case — racist and/or homophobic is dangerous. I have been assuming the best in others all of my life, only to find I am punched in the gut by subtle bigotry because my defenses are down. I went to graduate school unprepared for the microaggressions, assumptions, and discrimination I faced there (on and off campus). Even with repeat offenders, I still did not (and, to some extent could not) eliminate them from my life entirely in order to protect myself. Here I am now, starting a new job, and I am making the same mistake.
Beyond failing to protect myself, assuming others are prejudice-free and practice equality is naive in the face of empirical evidence — both published research and personal experience — that most people are bigoted to some degree. I have few genuine, problem-free connections with other humans for that reason. Oh, she seems pretty open on race issues, but trivializes my experiences with homophobia. He and I feel a strong solidarity around queer issues, but bringing up male privilege is the best way to end that conversation. Telling myself that most people aren’t bigots is lying to myself when I know in the back of my head the reality; I am naively falling for the “a few bad apples” mentality.
Focusing on who is racist and who isn’t, for example, misplaces attention to individuals within the larger social system of racism. I call it the “racist hot potato” game, where we make futile efforts to discern who is a racist and why. All while we leave in place the systemic marginalization of people of color and privileging of white people, and ignoring the daily microaggressions and threats of violence against racial and ethnic minorities. “I’m sure he meant no harm” let’s both an individual who benefits from that system of oppression, and oppression itself, off of the hook. You are then left with your doubt and now dismissed accusations — maybe even the counter-accusation that you are hypersensitive, petty, or even a bigot yourself.
So, in thinking about oppression in systemic terms, I should be less focused on individual oppressors. People are a large part of the problem, but it is futile to focus just on individuals. And, it is dangerous. So, for my survival, I am no longer assuming people are not bigots. Ideally, I will take one of the best pieces of advice I have received lately: have no expectations. (You won’t be disappointed!) At my most pessimistic, I can take the “prejudiced until proven innocent” approach with each new person I meet. I just wish it had not taken nearly three decades and lots of disappointment with humanity to get to this point.
This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man). I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.
Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:
Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence. I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).
Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference. Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics. In part, this is because we want to do a great job. But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough. And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.
But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated. So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters. This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.
There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article. One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:
Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging. Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).
As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent. The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood). Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.
If only it were that simple. Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior. Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes. For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…). So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.
Think Like A Drag Queen
I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen. And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations. Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative. In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire. There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience. Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.
This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody. Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards. You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life. You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel. We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations. Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards). Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.
Make Them Eat It And Gag!
How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.” It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds. The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.
I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream. Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society. Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it. More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream. Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).
The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness. By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it. Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed. As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves. I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin. But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into. As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.
The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia. We are the outsiders within. To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.” We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.
But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it. We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable. Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path). For, “the haters will read, even if you peed. You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.” So, “make them eat it and gag.”
Do It For The Children, Hunty!
Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor. During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.” But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds. By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model. I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers. I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.
By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end. I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs. And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?” (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)
Seek Professional Help, If Needed
I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter. But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life. After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness. Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase. Find something that works for you!
And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives. That is the point at which one should seek professional help. This is just a job. There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems. Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!
Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health). Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help. Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out. As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).
- “6 Strategies to Kick Imposter Syndrome to the Curb” via U.S. News and World Report – Money, Careers
- “Essay How New Faculty Members Can Deal Impostor Syndrome” via Inside Higher Ed
- “9 Tips for Dealing With Imposter Syndrome” via A Year of Living Academically
- “Banishing Impostor Syndrome” via gradhacker
“The Impostor Syndrome: Exposing and Overcoming It” (Standford)
- “Imposter Syndrome and Feeling Stupid” by Megan Fork
- “How I cured my imposter syndrome” via The Contemplative Mammoth
- “Back-to-School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips” via Crunk Feminist Collective
- “Too Much Self-Doubt? Try Thinking Like a Creator” via profhacker
- “No, You’re Not an Impostor” via Science magazine
- “Do you dismiss your accomplishments as ‘no big deal’?” via Dr. Valarie Young
- “Getting over imposter syndrome” via Escape the Ivory Tower
- Survival tips for women academics via Inside Higher Ed
A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research. In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time. Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect. Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.
So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”
Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It
Um, hello? “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).
“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].
If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men. This is for two reasons. First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing. An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man. This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster! pick up your feet and run!” So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.
Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take. Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression. “Don’t do that — that’s girly!” “Man up.” “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.” Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.” I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.” So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.” Then, you will really be successful.
The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out
And, another thing! This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819). That is 182 biologists around the world. Yes, that is a small sample.
Let me dig in a little more. These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818). Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university. So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status). Tenure status was not considered. The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.
Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818). Order of authorship was ignored. Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored. Other journals were ignored.
To Be Fair
Let me stop there. My intention is not to trash the authors’ work. They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses. What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets. In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample. Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:
It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.
By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.
The take-home message: publish early, publish often.
To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research. However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.
A Personal Rant
The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic. That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities. The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place. This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].
This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs. Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter. I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people. The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline. Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men. Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position. But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.
But, I did start publishing “early.” I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth. Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years. That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.
What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place. Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students. One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program. That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.
If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues. But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places. For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia. Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.
The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].
Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring. Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background. This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable). And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality. For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market. (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)
But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together. Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings. We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms. It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors. And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.