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Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia. If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change. But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time. Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now! But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.
Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking. Please add your own ideas in the comments section!
- Educate yourself about the state of higher education, particularly in terms of inequality, increasing student debt, and the growing reliance on contingent faculty. Learn about the leaky pipelines for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
- Let go of the myth of meritocracy in academia once and for all. Do not perpetuate the myth by claiming or assuming that things are fair and equal. Speak openly and honestly with colleagues and students about inequality in academia.
- Recognize community service as a form of service for yourself and others.
- Learn more about open access and other ways of making academic research and knowledge publicly accessible.
- Redefine “impact” to move beyond impact factors and citation rates. Consider the impact your work has outside of the ivory tower. Allow yourself to determine the value of your scholarship, rather than relying exclusively on what departments, universities, and disciplines value as important and meaningful.
- Stay true to your goals and values. Do not let tradition limit your imagination. Thinking outside of the box is good for science and higher education.
- Be brave.
- Speak up when you feel safe to do so.
- Empower your students and colleagues to speak up.
- Ask questions. If a conversation or meeting raises concern, ask for further clarification. This allows you to appear curious or possibly confused without automatically challenging someone else.
- Prioritize self-care. Encourage others to do so, as well, or at least respect others’ need to make certain decisions at work based on personal and family needs.
- Talk to your students and junior colleagues about what academic careers entail for marginalized scholars. Be clear that you are not attempting to scare them, rather you are preparing them for challenges that may lie ahead in their careers.
- Support graduate students no matter their career plans after graduation. Begin a mentoring relationship with a conversation about their plans, and be sure to revisit this conversation every year or every other year.
- Educate yourself about alternative career paths for PhDs, or at least find resources to offer to students considering them.
- Be aware of the artificial hierarchies and rankings in academia and higher education, but do not let them influence how you interact with colleagues.
- Check your biases, stereotypes, and assumptions. If you find that you hold them, find out how to eliminate them, or at least to suspend them in interacting with and evaluating others. Ask trusted colleagues to call you out if you demonstrate bias; when they do, listen without getting defensive or feeling guilty.
- Check your privilege. Avoid dismissing another person’s experiences or perspective just because it does not mirror yours. Never tell a marginalized student or colleague about their own experience. Figure out ways to use your privileged status to make a difference and to make space for marginalized people.
- Ask your students and colleagues for their preferred name and pronoun, and give your own. Work to make these seem like a normal practice, rather than a special event when a transgender or gender non-conforming person is present.
- Blog and use other forms of social media. Allow yourself to appear as an imperfect, evolving, thinking, and feeling human — not simply the static, perfectly-put together researcher reflected in articles and books. Make yourself available outside of the ivory tower.
- Share your own narrative with colleagues and students, whether it is one of privilege (which you acknowledge), serendipity, or adversity. Let’s stop pretending that there is one, clear, linear path toward becoming a professor, and that it is the only possible path after graduate school.
- Let go of the myth of color-blindness, gender-blindness, and other forms of “blindness” to others’ identities and experiences. Rather, be conscious of difference and inequality, and find ways to proactively work against systemic discrimination and exclusion.
- Without resorting to tokenizing, be sure to include diverse voices and perspectives on conference panels, course syllabi, references, edited volumes, guest blog posts, etc.
- Get comfortable with self-promotion, especially if you are a member of one or more marginalized groups. And, respect others efforts to promote their work, particularly because it is necessary to be successful in academia.
- Promote your colleagues’ and students’ work, particularly those from marginalized groups.
- Go beyond telling junior colleagues and grad students to “be careful” — and never say “shut up”/”be quiet.” If you actually have a reason to worry about a particular individual (that is, stop automatically assuming junior scholars will be reckless anarchists), offer specific advice on navigating departmental, university, and disciplinary politics. Explain why you are giving that advice, namely that you care about their success, well-being, and livelihood.
- When possible, make every effort to ensure that students or junior colleagues do not fall through the cracks or bear some burden because others could not be bothered.
- At least say hello to familiar faces — students, new colleagues, contingent faculty, administrative staff, etc.
- Avoid viewing colleagues as potential competition, even if you are applying for the same opportunity.
- Have lunch with students and junior colleagues, and make an effort to talk about something other than work or classes (if you/they are comfortable doing so). It can be incredibly reassuring to see that one’s professors/senior colleagues are human, too.
- Don’t be an asshole. Period.
- Learn how to disagree with someone without attacking them as a person. If it is not really a right-or-wrong issue, find a way to offer a different, rather than “better,” view.
- Step up and step back in meetings. Avoid dominating the conversation. If you are chairing it, make an effort to allow everyone to speak. Pay attention to see if junior scholars have remained silent or were silenced. But, find a way to gently nudge if someone needs encouragement; avoid putting someone on the spot who may really not have anything to contribute.
- Learn about your department’s and university’s policies and practices regarding contingent faculty. Find out whether there is anything you can do to improve the situation.
- Do not treat contingent faculty like servants, outsiders, or somehow inferior. Treat them like humans first, and colleagues second. Understand that their circumstances may be shitty, if not outright exploitative.
- Serve on important departmental, university, and disciplinary committees.
- Serve as department chair or a higher level administrator.
- Keep an eye on the balance of service in your department. Definitely watch for disproportionate service falling on women faculty, either assigned or volunteered (especially as men faculty avoid it).
- When accounting for and advancing diversity, avoid nominal diversity — that is, simply counting “women and minorities.” Find ways to embrace and celebrate diversity in the department/university culture. Once marginalized students/scholars are in the door, make sure that they feel equally supported and included, and are making good progress in their work.
- Move beyond considering only race and gender as diversity. Broaden race to race, ethnicity, nativity, and immigrant status. Broaden gender to consider the inclusion of women and transgender and gender non-conforming people. Begin to recognize and advance sexual identity, disability, social class, weight, religion, age, and family structure as other important dimensions of diversity.
- Move beyond a single-identity conceptualization of diversity. Begin attending to the intersections among identities. This will help to avoid systematically hiring the most privileged members of oppressed groups (e.g., white women, Black men). This will also help to understand each individual’s lives holistically; for example, be careful not to view Black women simply as women or Black.
- Support working parents. Educate yourself about your university’s family leave and other policies. If possible, be willing to offer additional support using the (likely conservative) university policies as a minimum level of support.
- Go beyond being “not prejudiced.” Be aware that oppressed groups, as a matter of survival, must be wary of intolerance or even violence. Do not assume that not intentionally discriminating is enough for others to feel welcomed and included.
- Challenge biased comments and microaggressions in your classes. Do not wait for students to speak up, as they may not feel comfortable doing so, or may even fail to see the problem — you are the instructor. If you do not want to alienate the student who made the comment, foster dialogue about it rather than silencing or chastising them.
- Allow yourself to view your class as somewhat flexible and organic. If something relevant or important is going on it the world or on campus, spend a few minutes at the start or end of class discussing it. Having an honest, intelligent conversation about racism on campus, for example, may be more important in the long run than sticking rigidly to the syllabus.
- Let go of the myth of objectivity in research and the classroom. Or, at least acknowledge that some cling to “objectivity” without noting that such a perspective is conflated with (or only afforded to) the view of white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West.
- Where possible, include overlooked and marginalized topics in your courses. For example, cover transgender health in a course on health/medicine to demonstrate the relevance and importance of the topic (and trans communities in general).
- If you (must) use a textbook that excludes or distorts the lives of oppressed communities, explicitly point this out to your students and consider adding additional readings by and/or about members of these communities.
- Consider countering the systemic invisibility of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other oppressed communities in academia with the systemic exclusion of white middle-class heterosexual cis men without disabilities. Start with oppressed voices, and only include those of the privileged if they are a useful complement. Unfortunately, I must also advise being ready to defend this system against charges of “reverse discrimination.”
- Speak truth to power. Do research that challenges others’ exclusive, biased, or distorted research. Embrace your unique perspective (if you are marginalized) to influence a new way of viewing the world.
- Let’s be honest about pervasive mental health problems in academia. Find out what resources exist on campus, in the local community, and online. Recognize that many campus health centers fail to effectively address the needs of graduate students. Be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing others’ well-being as “not my problem.”
- If you use images in your lectures or presentations, take a little extra time to ensure that you reflect diverse people and interests. If you lazily choose one of the first images that comes up, you may end up exclusively with pictures of white men. (For example, do a Google image search of “professor.”) Make an effort to counter the stereotypical images that many students will carry.
- Educate yourself about universal design for learning. From the start of developing a course, make efforts to make the material and discussion accessible to all students. Avoid the pattern of simply accommodating students with disabilities when they are in your courses.
- Become critical of standard measures of academic ability and achievement, including the SAT, GRE, and other tests, grade point average, etc. Educate yourself about the bias inherent in these exams that likely contribute to inequality in admission, retention, graduation, and funding.
- Acknowledge the high rate of sexual violence on college campuses — targeted against students and staff and faculty. Learn about your university’s practices for handling reports of violence, and realize that few incidents are reported, and even fewer yield justice for the victims. Educate yourself about ways to support survivors of violence. Consider advocating for improving how sexual violence is reported and prosecuted.
- Respect or even encourage your students’ and colleagues’ activist efforts. Avoid telling them activism is akin to bias, or cannot co-exist with academia, or is a waste of time.
- Be authentic. Let students and colleagues see diversity in academia. If you are marginalized, do your best to avoid sending the message that one must sell-out in order to succeed in the academy.
- Investigate whether your campus offers gender-neutral bathrooms. If it does not, pressure campus administration to create gender-neutral bathrooms that are of the same quality and are as conveniently accessed as sex-segregated bathrooms. If it only has one or a few gender-neutral bathrooms, push for the creation of more. Create a map of campus that pinpoints where these restrooms can be found to publicize their existence and location.
- Educate yourself about the conditions for staff on your campus. Are wages fair and equitable? Are working conditions safe? Are staff given a voice in administrative affairs?
- Attend your university’s safe zone/safe space training program. Encourage your colleagues to do so, as well. If they reply, “but, I am already so LGBT-friendly, I don’t need extra training,” explain that taking that extra step to demonstrate friendliness is necessary because many LGBT people assume the absence of it may mean hostility. (It is a matter of survival in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic world!) If your university does not have a safe zone/space program, consider starting one.
- Explicitly tell your students that you want them to do well in your courses — and mean it. (I have always done this, and was told just recently that most professors don’t and, as such, students’ don’t assume it.)
- Encourage your students to meet with you during office hours. It may help to offer an incentive, but I hesitate to encourage that it be required. Be sure you have explained the purpose of office hours when you mention them. If there are students whose performance concerns you, do not hesitate to (privately) ask them to meet with you — but, make clear that they are not being punished.
- Avoid trivializing students’ health concerns, including (and maybe especially) mental health problems. Refer them to the proper health professional if necessary. Do not attempt to assess the problem, how severe it is, or how to “cure” it if you are not a qualified health professional.
- When you give advice, still respect that others may ignore it. Allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Do not pressure a student or junior colleague to do what you think is “best,” especially if you do not know them beyond a professional relationship.
- Be mindful of power dynamics, particularly where you are in the higher position. Students, junior colleagues, and others in the subordinate position may feel that your suggestions are demands. They may hesitate to challenge you, correct your assumptions about them, and even to share certain (personal) details with you for fear of harm to their grades/job.
- If you are a mentor, encourage your mentees to consider having additional mentors. Avoid presenting your perspective and advice as the only way. If time allows and mentees are comfortable with it, consider holding joint meetings with their other mentors; this may save them the time of holding individual meetings about one issue, and then having to navigate potentially conflicting advice.
- Learn about contrapower sexual harassment. If you teach about sexual violence, include this topic in your courses.
- Write op-eds and letters to the editor to the school’s newspaper about issues on campus or in the local community. You may even offer a scholarly perspective to demonstrate how our everyday lives are actually connected to what we learn in the classroom.
- Make some concept or trend in your discipline accessible by writing op-eds and letters to the editor to local, national, or international media. Or, write about your own research.
- Just as you ensure that working parents are not burdened by work, make sure that colleagues who do not have children are not asked to pick up additional work. No matter one’s family situation, or reason for needing to leave work by 6pm, every worker’s personal life should be respected (especially if they are not officially paid for extra hours).
- On Twitter, participate in #SaturdaySchool, and then help build academic online communities by participating in #ScholarSunday.
- Work with your department and university — or demand of them — that standards for tenure and promotion be stated as explicitly as possible. Ask that the rates of successful promotions be provided, including a comparison by race and ethnicity, gender, and other important statuses.
- Teach community-based learning courses. Or, find less intensive ways to encourage working with the community.
- Start a scholarship.
- Commit to recycling and cutting waste. Start a recycling program if your university does not already have one. If you must print documents, use double-sided printing. Encourage (or even require) students to email assignments. If you scan documents that will be printed, take the time to eliminate dark areas to reduce wasted ink.
- Participate in your department or university’s Dr. Martin Luther King day celebrations. If your school is closed, take a second to explain the significance of the day — don’t just call it a holiday. If it is not closed, advocate for closing to observe MLK day or at least hold a meaningful ceremony to honor his legacy.
- Participate in Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, LGBT Pride month/week (varies by school), Disability Awareness Month, National Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other national and regional celebrations. If these celebrations are not recognized, start a committee to plan events for them.
- Participate in Take Back the Night and other Sexual Assault Awareness Month events.
- Invite graduate students to participate on important departmental committees. Consider encouraging the graduate students to create and elect a representative position — or even multiple positions — and give them a vote. When they vote or otherwise participate in discussion, genuinely listen and consider their input. (Grad students are not dumb. They will sense that you have only included them out of obligation or to appease them, but do not seriously consider what they have to say.)
- Take a developmental, rather than destructive, approach to the peer-review process. View your role as a reviewer as one to advance a paper, which will ultimately advance science, rather than one of a gate-keeper or critic. Avoid looking for ways to advance your own research or agenda.
- Put extra copies of books that you assign on reserve at the library and announce that you have done so in your classes (twice). Some students will attempt to find ways around buying expensive textbooks, including some who will never obtain a copy and thus suffer in the course. Do your best to find cheaper or free options in the first place.
- Investigate whether every building on campus is accessible. Pressure or even work with university administration to renovate buildings that are currently inaccessible to all people, regardless of ability.
- Check your own and others’ classist beliefs. Assume class diversity. Do not assume that anyone in academia, whether student or faculty, comes from a middle-class or upper-class family. Where possible, try to minimize out-of-pocket costs for classes, extracurricular activities, conferences, and professional development. In evaluating students or colleagues, be mindful that some simply cannot afford special, or even some basic, opportunities. Avoid confusing lack of resources with lack of commitment, motivation, or aptitude.
- Advocate for needs-blind admission into your university.
- Refrain from criticizing the ways in which oppressed people survive in oppressive institutions and societies. If you are unwilling to support others’ survival, at least avoid adding to their plight with your judgement, criticism, or questioning their identity and politics.
- Teach your marginalized students how to survive in oppressive institutions and societies.
- Organize a fair or event with information and resources for maintaining healthy relationships.
- Investigate whether racial profiling occurs on/near your campus by campus or local police. If it does, work to raise awareness about it, and with law enforcement to eliminate unfair and discriminatory practices.
- If you serve as an academic advisor, be proactive in reaching out to your marginalized and first-generation students, especially during their first year. Encourage them to get involved with at least one group on campus or in the local community, and to meet with career services as early as possible.
- Honor the work of administrative staff in your department and elsewhere on campus by celebrating Administrative Professionals’ Day. But, be sure to thank them for their work throughout the year, as well.
- Propose a conference panel on professional development tips for marginalized academics or on public scholarship.
- Practice random acts of kindness.
- Organize a social event for your department to get your colleagues out of their offices.
- Propose a newspaper program that provides local and national newspapers free to all students, staff, and faculty.
- Serve as a faculty or staff advisor for a student organization related to social justice.
- Conduct a campus-wide needs assessment for all or particular communities of marginalized students. Make recommendations for change based on their needs and the campus climate.
- Stage a rally or protest about an issue about which your college has remained unresponsive or ignored completely.
- Create a campus resource center for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, international students and scholars, people with disabilities, first-generation students, or another disadvantaged group.
- Advocate for the creation of accessible, clean, and private spaces for breastfeeding and other needs of parents with young children.
- Challenge yourself to be more educated about social justice, more empathetic, kinder, and open to difference and change.
- Create an academic program or department that focuses on marginalized communities (e.g., racial and ethnic studies, women’s studies).
- Join the fight to minimize or eliminate the growing problem of college student debt.
Please add your own big and small ideas in the comments section.
A few months ago, I agreed to be a guest speaker via Skype for a professional seminar course in a master’s program in sexuality studies. Per the professor’s request, I spoke about my experiences in academia, particularly navigating the academic job market. Since that final chapter of my graduate training was one filled with heavy-handed advice yet the greatest level of independence yet, and authenticity and selling out, I necessarily spoke about my job search as a Black queer intellectual activist. (Indeed, that was the narrative most relevant to this class of sexualities scholars of diverse backgrounds.) In addition to pushing back against others’ expectations for my career, I also spoke about how I presented myself, including decisions regarding my online presence.
I briefly rambled about my job search, graduate training, and career thus far, and then opened the floor for questions and comments. One student in the class asked, “you mentioned your social justice advocacy — but, all you do is blog?” Ouch. I went on the defense, arguing that, as a new tenure-track professor, all I have the time and energy for once my week is done is to blog. Teaching and research are the primary tasks upon which I am evaluated; and, service hardly ever means community service, and probably never activism.
What I did not say was, “you’ve got me! I guess I’m not really an activist.” In fact, I decided to pursue an academic career because I never felt competent at front-lines activism and community organizing. I am too sensitive and timid to be at the front of a picket line or going door-to-door to campaign. I have always felt most comfortable pushing for change in academic settings. And, from my senior honor thesis onward, I have felt my niche is in pushing for change via research and teaching. But, as I sit before these students who were brave enough to pursue degrees in sexuality studies — with my dress clothes on, and my PhD in sociology — I did feel called out. What about my life right now resembles anything “activist”? (Nothing and everything.)
Later, another student expressed appreciation for my efforts to make change from within. Yes! The student named for me my brand of activism in a way that seemed so obvious, but never crystallized before now. If all who demand change are outside holding picket signs, getting petitions signed, contacting politicians, etc., who is on the inside making sure important institutions even hear these demands? And, the reverse means all are inside with their hands tied by institutional practices and norms. Some need to work for change inside, some need to demand change from the outside. I have long known this, and decided that I am most effective at working from within. But, I do feel a twinge of guilt that I am not doing “more” (meaning working outside of the system).
Ironically, I have faced the harshest criticism for being too much of an activist. In publicly declaring my effort to infuse academia with activism, others have disagreed that the two can ever mix. In specifically challenging the standard of “objectivity” in research and in the classroom, given its implicit valuing of the dominant group’s perspective (i.e., white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West), I have been mocked for daring to bring my own perspective into my work. Even in simply proposing that more (sociological) social psychological research focus on sexual orientation, I was passive aggressively chided by a professor for being “Mr. Activist.” The criticism and character assaults I have faced as of late seem to suggest I am the most radical activist to ever work in sociology; I appear to be a threat to the discipline, and must be squashed to protect it. Even just blogging has rubbed a number of fellow sociologists the wrong way.
I don’t understand — am I just another sellout, drawn to the comforts of a tenure-track career in academia? Or, am I yet another radical scholar who threatens the academic status quo? How can I be both?
Do You, Boo!
The summer brought in an unexpected wave of anxiety. The momentary reprieve from teaching did not bring peace of mind; it seemed to open the door to all sorts of doubts and questions. The gateway stressor was “what am I supposed to be doing during my first summer?!” That seemed to lead to asking myself competing questions: “what do I want to do this summer?” and “what kind of career do I want?” The latter question reopened the door for me to
obsess over revisit the warnings I received from my graduate advisors about taking a liberal arts job (e.g., little research productivity, irrelevance in the profession/discipline, become “damaged goods” in the eyes of research universities). How could I focus on wanting to relax and do some traveling when I am worried about tenure, irrelevance, and others’ opinions?
I have learned to listen to my body when I experience symptoms of/related to my anxiety. I talked over my worries with trusted mentors, colleagues, and friends, decided to take Fridays off all summer, planned another short vacation, and worked on settling these doubts once and for all. I recognized that I had allowed others’ opinions — my graduate advisors’, those that I presumed of my current institution, and online critics — to heavily affect me. And, I had lost sight of the fact that I must work to define my own career my entire life, especially if I dare to create change within and through academia.
As selfish as it feels, I have been painfully aware that I must work on my self-esteem and confidence before I can really get to work to make change. That means getting more comfortable in my own skin and in the decisions that I make. I have revisited the writings of Patricia Hill Collins on being an “outsider within” in academia and on intellectual activism. No matter how much change I dare to make in academia, simply being in it will forever mean being an outsider within; if I want a satisfying and authentic career, I will have to work for it and push back against the status quo. But, I do want to make change. I want my discipline to better reflect the lives (and perspectives!) of oppressed communities — speak truth to power! I want academia to proactively work to improve the world beyond the ivory tower — speak truth to the people! No matter what, I do not have a choice but to be an activist for the sake of my own survival, and the survival of my communities.
For leisure reading, I picked up Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World. I knew about her “wise Latina” comment, which she was forced to retract essentially upon being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. But, I did not have more context for the sentiment. In essence, she is an outsider within in the legal profession. She is well aware of, and has fought to challenge, the barriers faced by people of color in law and the courts. And, she intentionally draws upon her background and personal experiences to inform her perspective as a judge (and when she was an attorney); but, which she makes clear, she does not allow her personal perspective trump legal precedence, the law, or the Constitution. Rather, her perspective as a Latina woman is an asset not well reflected in the law and courts. All of this mirrors Collins’s argument about the value of a Black feminist perspective in sociology.
Sotomayor and Collins, as well as other “outsiders within” in academia, serve as important role models for me. Their struggles and triumphs remind me to stay the course — continue to bring about change within and through academia by drawing on my own experiences and perspective. I cannot afford to waste time and energy on what other people think about or expect of me. The tall task of advancing a fat Black/multiracial queer feminist worldview stands before me, with the additional challenge of doing so both with and against the mainstream theories and models in my discipline.
Besides, as one grad school professor told me, I will always struggle with the tension between activism and academia; the day I find balance between the two is the day I have gone too far in one direction or the other. I will forever be a sellout by radical activists’ standards, and a radical by mainstream academics who defend the status quo. Oh well, this radical sellout has work to do.
Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes. They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality. Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities. Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.
Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia. I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!). And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).
Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia. But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia. I am referring to those who willfully do not see them. Let me give a few examples, big and small:
- Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around. Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much. Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
- Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market. And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations. Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
- Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations. “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?” Both times, I had to look away and count to ten. Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
- Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work. In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!). I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department. Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
- Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it. What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers. Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued. I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline. For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school. Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals. But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
- Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation]. Want the most career options? Select a white man as your dissertation chair. Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia? Hmm, that probably is not a white man. So, what do you value more — your success or your survival? Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee. Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc. But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
- In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged. At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia! Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.” “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?” “How could she be racist?” Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more! Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability! non-generalizable! selection effect! At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?
Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse. We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces. And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged. Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.
This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer” Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it. At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness. In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement. We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.
I have made compromises along the way — bit my tongue here, chosen success over authenticity there — in order to advance my training and career in academia. With few people who look like me as mentors and professors, I suppose it seemed foolish to completely forgo any kind of caution and compromise. Yeah, let’s go with that excuse.
But, the joke is often on me as my disguise as an apolitical mainstream scholar is recognized by colleagues and students as just that — a disguise. I could not totally hide my activist self even if I tried; and, admittedly, I have never made the full effort to do so.
Who Let An Activist In Here?
Look at where I am in my career. There is no need to brag here, but my accomplishments should not be overlooked. In an era of second, third, fourth… rounds in the job market, with the majority of instructors holding contingent positions — unfortunately, disproportionately Black and women scholars — I am in a tenure-track position, fresh out of graduate school (which I finished “early”). Add to that my marginalized social location, and my research interests in discrimination, sexuality, and the intersections among race, gender, social class, weight, and sexual orientation. That is along with a list of service experience on my CV that clearly reflects community service — lots of it. And, with a very public and provocative reputation on social media. And, to my relief, securing this job has not turned out to be an error on the university’s part; they knew what they were getting and actually wanted someone like me.
I am here — a 28-year-old fat Black queer intellectual activist sociologist, in a tenure-track faculty position at the #25 liberal arts university in the US — after a series of compromises peppered with activism, advocacy, and authenticity. It is not the path I intended, and I carry scars and regrets from it; but, I did the best that I could through the hazing process of graduate training. I am keenly aware of the demands to conform, shut up, disappear, stress, jump and ask, “how high?”. But, it has taken some time to recognize how professors, mentors, friends, and family supported and encouraged me to subvert, resist, demand change, speak up, and pave my own trail.
Activist Gone Academic
In the era of social media, regularly presenting and describing one’s self is now a regular task. Since I joined Facebook in 2003, I have often described myself as an “activist gone academic.” Now, a decade later, I am surprised I even had a sense of what these distinct identities mean, and a fuzzy sense of the loose relationship between them. To give myself a little more credit, one of the major reasons for deciding on sociology as my major was to become a better, more informed activist. That later served as one of the major reasons for pursuing a PhD.
Along the way, I had faculty and student affairs staff who supported my advocacy efforts and, more importantly, supported my effort to bridge academia and activism. As a member of the campus activities organization, I created the “Cinema Series” — a monthly film series on social justice-oriented films (e.g., Crash, Brokeback Mountain, North Country) followed by Q&A facilitated by a professor. As I co-led a campus group to advocate for greater services and resources for LGBT students (particularly the creation of an LGBT campus resource center), I had the support of a number of faculty. Beyond those directly involved, I had a couple of professors who allowed me to use this initiative as a part of the major paper for their class.
The critical point where I was encouraged to bring activism and academia together was my sociology honors thesis. As the initiative to create the “Rainbow Center” (LGBT campus resource center) stalled, I turned my attention to completing an honors thesis to increase my appeal to graduate programs. Initially, I proposed studying LGBT activism on campus. My advisor, Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to focus instead on a topic that would 1) provide further evidence for the need of an LGBT campus resource center and 2) advance my academic career. So, I decided on the most obvious: attitudes toward lesbian and gay people among students. With the mentorship of my other advisor, Dr. Ilsa Lottes, I published my thesis in the university’s journal for undergraduate research, presented it at the undergraduate research fair, and then she and I published another paper in the International Journal of Sexual Health. These mentors demonstrated that academia could, indeed, serve as a vehicle to create social change.
And, Then Grad School…
A former professor of mine from my graduate program wrote a blog response to me about activist efforts in academia: “Why activism and academia don’t mix.” I would say this sentiment generally reflects the department’s views on activism. Oddly enough, there is (limited) support for public sociology. However, the message that was sent to me was to limit how much service you do, keep it a secret, and producing knowledge (not producing change) was our top priority as researchers. So, I followed suit — I kept my (community) service private and learned how to “mainstream” my research. After all, graduate training is part training and part professional socialization. We are resocialized to become scholars, not just to do scholarship.
I am not certain whether my grad school advisors would want me saying this publicly. But, what the hell. They deserve credit. For all of my selling out, frustration, struggles, etc., I had support, even in graduate school, in developing an activist-academic career. It all started with admitting me into the program!
An excerpt from the personal statement I sent along with my grad school applications:
My goal for pursuing Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Sociology is not only motivated by my desire to further my research experience and my ability to contribute to existing research, but is also motivated by my desire to become a knowledgeable, effective educator and mentor for future students and scholars. Having realized my passion for working with students outside of the classroom, eventually I hope to serve as a director of an on-campus resource center, such as the Women’s or LGBT Centers. More broadly, I hope to become an experienced scholar within the study of sexuality and related issues, and of Sociology, to increase the number of such scholars, thereby providing future students with a larger pool of potential advisors, hopefully preventing the feeling of “few and far between” that exists now.
Maybe the program saw me as “moldable.” It is not as though I said I wanted to run a not-for-profit or become the next Dr. Martin Luther King. And, to be fair, I do not know what my undergraduate advisors said in their recommendation letters. And, the admissions committee waded through hundreds of applications, possibly not fully grasping what my personal statement is really saying. But, they had some indication from the start of who I am and what my passions are.
It seems the support I received to develop a career as an activist-academic did not exist during the early years of graduate school — the nadir of my training. But, that time was mostly spent in classes and serving as a teaching assistant. I was merely a student — angry and a potential drop-out — in those days.
The support emerged in the latter half as I began doing my own research. It was subtle, only visible to me after some time. For one of my advisors, “my #2” in my mind, it crystalized for me as we were talking through what would become my first solo-authored publication. “Wait… so this paper is pretty much about intersectionality!?” Without skipping a beat, and without a hint of surprise, my advisor said, “yeah! because that’s what you’re interested in.” My surprise that I was being encouraged to so directly tie my passion to the research I was doing reflects a number of years of feeling the two could never co-exist. Sure, intersectionality is a theoretical framework, not an activist initiative, per se. But, in this conversation, it became apparent that this advisor’s approach to mentoring me intentionally drew in what I was passionate about (both as a scholar and activist). And, the surprise to my surprise said so much — what other way is there to mentor a student?!
It took all six years, literally until the day I graduated, to see it with my main advisor. It was never explicitly acknowledged, and it never took the form I would expect. But, that is exactly why I did not see it. Yes, for all of my critiques of the pressure I felt to “mainstream” my research, I can actually see the positive intentions behind it. There was a great deal of “tough love” that aimed to push my efforts to make change via research on the biggest scale possible. There was sort of an unspoken “go big or go home” — that being cutting-edge and critical are meaningless if it stays on the margins.
In a way, this reflected what I would call “slow-boil activism.” I have certainly encountered a number of academics who push gently, evenly, and slowly so that they may advance to a more powerful position. My own critique of this is how much one must bite their tongue and compromise to stay on this path, and that waiting to make a big difference in 5, 10, or 20 years is a gamble on time not promised to you. But, I would be a hypocrite to disparage this approach because, in many ways, I am enacting this strategy on my own career. My point, here, is that my chair, in his own way, was also supporting me in my development of an activist-academic career.
And, now, I am a professor at an institution that wanted someone who would bring about change. I am not expected to hide my blogging and community service, as these are actually embraced; these were the strengths that were appealing when I interviewed. Of course, I am certain the other appeal is that I have a strong research record. (As I said, my career is one as an activist-academic.) Now, I am in yet another chapter of my academic career in which the activist is supported.
I have already made the point that academia and activism do mix. What I wish to emphasize here is that, though not always made explicit, I have benefited from the support of mentors and advisors who think so, too. These were people who knew from the start who I am and what I am passionate about. There may have been some potential advisors and mentors who avoided me because they took the position that activism and academia don’t mix; but, I had plenty who encouraged me to make the two mix in my career. Contrary to the anti-activism norms that exist in many places in academia, there appear to be a few who, to some degree, are willing to support the bridging between the two.
One Friday, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up tired and a bit grouchy. I cannot explain how, but I had a feeling the day was destined to be rough. Now teaching everyday except for Friday — three classes, including two on Tuesdays and Thursdays — I am typically extremely exhausted by Friday. But, I have yet to reach a week’s end where I could take Friday off from work, or even do light, mindless work. With a new course prep, if I do not get a decent amount of work done on Friday, I am setting the stage for a panic-filled Monday followed by more days of stress, and another exhausted Friday. Did I mention this semester is
kicking my ass challenging?
But, I digress. I logged into Facebook one last time before leaving for work finally. There I saw a picture of a Black History Month themed display at my university’s dining hall:
The cotton and bale of hay… What about this display is a celebration of Black history? What about this features the accomplishments of Black Americans, or aspects of Black culture? What
the fuck about this is a celebratory moment for Black people in the US? Yes, cotton — makes me think of the most oppressive and violent period in American history for Black people: slavery.
I saw that a colleague had posted the picture, taken from a student who posted it on Twitter earlier in the week. But, I decided to ignore it. I had not seen it for myself nor was I willing to make a special trip to see it. And, let’s be honest, I immediately felt this was not a matter I could fight as a pre-tenure professor. But, the major reason was I simply did not have the emotional and spiritual capacity because I was already bogged down fighting other demons. I had to muster up enough energy just to go to work.
Choosing Your Battles; Or, Racial Battle Fatigue
As the day went on, the bizarrely racist dining hall display increasingly bothered me, like a slow-release pill. I braved a smile as I chit-chatted with my colleagues about usual department matters. I spoke with one about being productive and politically “safe” as I progress toward tenure. Something about that colleague’s advice — that everyone’s tenure decision is political and uncertain, so you really cannot help but to be stressed for seven years — yanked the last shred of hope I had for the day. I almost walked away upon hearing it, but forced myself to carry out the conversation. When I returned to my office, it took every ounce of my energy to stay seated and keep working rather than collapsing into a ball on the floor to cry. I should have taken Tyra Banks’s advice: just let the cry out and get back to work.
But, what was there to cry about? Oh, that I cannot shake the feeling that I am slowly sabotaging my own career with every provocative tweet and blog post. That, maybe even at the end of this first year, I will receive a letter instructing me to clear out my office and seek new employment. For all of the positive feedback I have received on my blogging, I still hear a voice that says something bad will happen if I insist on publicly, vocally criticizing academia. Another way to put it is that I do not have a clear, external gauge for my standing at the university, and I will have to wait until my third year review to find one, though annual reviews may help, too.
By late afternoon, I returned to the dining hall display of nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.” Still, I did not feel comfortable voicing my concern without having seen it, and did not want to make the trip to see it. So, I asked my tenured colleague to voice a complaint, and made clear my hesitation as a tenure-track faculty member and, frankly, that I already felt depleted from other battles. Fortunately, a number of people had already spoken up and the display was removed.
My Survival Or My Survival? (But, not both…)
This incident highlighted a tension that I had not named for myself until now. On the one hand, I could speak up, emphasize the hostility to Black students, staff, faculty, and visitors that is conveyed by a display reminiscent of enslavement. That is, I could take an action to fight for the survival of my racial community. On the other hand, I could keep my mouth shut and “play it safe” as a junior professor, opting to avoid making enemies across campus. That is, I could chose inaction for the sake of keeping my job — my survival as an individual. Choosing to speak up (anti-racism) or shut up (job security) were my two opposing options. Do I focus on my survival (as a Black person) or my survival (as a professor)?
And, there it is. Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academia. Everyday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival. Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus. By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars. Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus. Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival. And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.
Unfortunately, my actions have consequences for my partner and family, as well. That means there is an additional layer — feeling selfish or reckless — each time I put my job on the line for the good of my communities. I would say once per month, I ask my partner, in essence, for permission to be myself. In that I fear professional consequences for blogging about academia, as well as other forms of advocacy on and off campus, I convey to him my worry that my actions could ultimately hurt him, as well. If I were fired before even going up for tenure for seen and unseen political reasons, we would both suffer (e.g., loss of income and benefits).
Every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind to eliminate the blog and start all over as a “safe,” silent, apolitical tenure-track professor. To just teach my classes and churn out publications. And, wait until tenure is awarded to become vocal and critical and involved in social justice work. Yes, then I would be safe. Right? Because all scholars have a fair chance at tenure, right?
I would not be safe. Every tenure decision is political. So, I have two choices: play it as safe as possible, all at the expense of fighting for my communities’ survival; or, speak up and out against injustice, potentially being labeled radical, “activist,” uppity, militant, or even a liability. I am doing my damnedest to balance the two paths.