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I was awarded a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship at the beginning of my fourth year in graduate school. This three-year fellowship freed me from teaching, allowed me to focus on publishing my research, and ultimately became my ticket to graduating early. Ford, in many ways, is the supportive community of scholars of color that is typically lacking in my department, university, and discipline. The annual conference, either in Washington, DC or Irvine, CA in alternating years, is always a rejuvenating treat for me.
At this year’s Conference of Ford Fellows (see the storified version of the conference, #Ford2015), I had the honor of participating on the closing panel alongside Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Fox Harrell: “Thinking Forward: Empowerment Through Intellectual Activism and Social Justice.” My talk, which I share below, details my journey to becoming an intellectual activist — including the intentional, coordinated efforts of my graduate training to “beat the activist out” of me. I conclude by “thinking forward” about this line of work in light of the attacks on public scholars in recent months. (Can you imagine it? I stood on the stage of the National Academies of Sciences in DC, speaking to an audience of brilliant scholars of color about intellectual activism!)
“Conditionally Accepted” In Academia
Activism In Childhood And College
My journey to becoming an intellectual activist, and the raising of my consciousness as a scholar-activist, reflect a great deal of my personal biography. I came to academia by way of activism – an “activist gone academic,” I often say. Growing up, I wanted to be the Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, or Thurgood Marshall of my generation. In fact, I had my first taste of Civil Rights activism at the age of 8. My mother and I marched in the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My grandmother, who had passed just 3 years earlier, marched in 1963 along side MLK. My mother and I were interviewed by a local CBS news reporter about the legacy of Civil Rights activism in our family; you can see that interview online [4:48].
I continued with activism in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). There, I devoted most of my advocacy to demanding that the college create more campus resources and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I co-led a team of students, staff, faculty, and administrators who pressured the university to create a campus resource center for LGBTQ students – what we would call the “Rainbow Center”. Our efforts eventually caught the attention of the university president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who tasked his Vice President of Student Affairs to work with our team. This led to the creation of a needs assessment team – which, I learned, is higher education-speak for creating a committee to talk about a problem, but probably not do anything about it. Below are some of the headlines of the UMBC student newspaper, the Retriever Weekly, which highlight the buzz – and sadly, the backlash – created by our efforts:
As a student activist, I was deterred by the slow, bureaucratic response, especially after receiving support from so many people on campus – including a petition to start the Rainbow Center that was signed by over 400 people. So, I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools, including taking on an honors thesis to make me a stronger candidate in the eyes of admissions committees. My honors thesis advisors, Dr. Ilsa Lottes and Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to use my research to advance my LGBTQ activism. I decided to study attitudes toward lesbians and gay men on campus, offering further evidence of the need for the campus resource center. Ideally, this would contribute to the needs assessment that was being carried out. And, I would later be able to publish from the survey data, including a co-authored peer-reviewed article, to advance LGBTQ research. This was my first exposure to intellectual activism, though I didn’t yet know the name for what I was doing. At the time, it seemed quite natural to me that research would speak to activism, and vice versa.
Graduate School As Trauma
Unfortunately, graduate school showed me that my safe bubble of undergrad was a fantasy – perhaps an anomaly. In fact, grad school was traumatizing for me. Let me say that again: graduate school was traumatizing for me. I entered grad school at Indiana University as a Black queer activist with plans to study, and ultimately end, racism in queer communities. I wanted to use qualitative methods to make visible the invisible, and give voice to the voiceless. I wanted only to teach and do research, leaving me time for advocacy and community service. As such, I was content with working at a liberal arts college. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond – an experience that I passed up for college because liberal arts schools were too expensive and offered too little in scholarships and financial aid.
Instead, I left grad school with a PhD, a job at a small liberal arts college not far from home, and enough emotional baggage to land me in therapy. I am now a quantitative medical sociologist who is desperately trying to get back to my research interests of the naïve age of 22. I simply did not get the qualitative and critical training that I wanted because I bought into the ideology that those interests and methods would never land me a job.
When my therapist first told me I had experienced a trauma – a six-year-long traumatic episode – I scoffed. Sexual violence, armed robbery, hate crimes, child abuse – those are traumas. Who gets traumatized by furthering their education? Apparently, I did. I have wondered, “why me? What’s wrong with me?” How did others enjoy an experience that left me traumatized? As the recovery process has begun, I have been able to think like a critical sociologist to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate education and academia in general that contributed to the trauma:
- First, there was the regular experience and witnessing of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions: warnings to not “talk Black” during interviews; praise from a fellow student for having ghetto booties; seeing Black women students hair petted by white faculty like zoo animals; the annual ethnic-themed department holiday party; etc. These conditions create a hostile environment for marginalized students.
- Second, scholarship on my own communities – Black and LGBTQ – was explicitly devalued. The message was that we are not important to mainstream sociology. Apparently, most white sociologists, like George W. Bush, don’t care about Black people; and, everyone knows studying queer people won’t land you a decent job in sociology.
- The third factor was the undermining of my career choices, including the intense pressure to take a job at a research I university – even if it meant living in the most racist and homophobic parts of the country. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college of which few have heard, it seems as though I’m no longer on my grad department’s radar – and the feeling is mutual.
- The final factor was the effort to “beat the activist out” of me – a direct quote from one of my professors in grad school. I had already developed a triple consciousness as a Black queer man in America. The message that “activism and academia don’t mix” demanded that I develop a fourth consciousness. Apparently, at four, one is ripped apart. You can no longer be a whole person.
Conditionally Accepted in Academia
I share this very personal narrative as a lead up to the start of my recent work as an intellectual activist – or, really, the reemergence of my intellectual activism. After grad school, I created Conditionally Accepted – an online space for scholars on the margins of academia. The name came from my coming out experience, particularly with my parents’ newfound acceptance of my queer sexuality because I was doing well in school. An HIV-positive, drug-abusing, suicidal gay son wouldn’t get their acceptance (at least not right away). But, a healthy and academically successful gay son – a “normal” son – did. Similar conditions apply in the academy. One of these conditions is to be an objective, detached, apolitical scholar – not an activist. Academics will slowly allow Black people in as long as we don’t make too much noise about race or challenge the racist status quo. Pursue critical work and activism at your own risk.
Conditionally Accepted reflects the raising of my consciousness about injustice in academia. So much of what happened to me is the product of the structure and culture of grad school and academia. I struggled through without access to the stories and wisdom of others like me who had already been through it. Now, I share my story in hopes that current and future students of marginalized backgrounds will not feel alone, and not struggle as I did. Essentially, I’ve turned my critical lens on oppression back onto academia itself.
Admittedly, a part of me worries that this is a bit navel-gazey. I’m writing about academia to academics, rather than being an advocate for communities beyond the ivory tower. (But, I am doing that, too!) But, the ivory tower is not immune to the realities of oppression of our society. In her book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins defines it as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.” Her conceptualization of intellectual activism includes speaking truth to power (in our case, the academy) and speaking truth to the people (or, the communities beyond the ivory tower. These efforts are interdependent and equally important. So, my form of intellectual activism is actually not navel-gazing at all. Though Conditionally Accepted is simply a blog (for now), I am working to make academia a more equitable and humane place. Specifically, I aim to support marginalized scholars so that we can better do our jobs and, ideally, give us more space to serve our communities and speak truth to the people.
Indeed, I believe blogging and social media in general can serve as tools for intellectual activism. Conditionally Accepted offers narratives about scholars’ challenges with oppression, wrestling with the incongruence between personal and professional values, and some advice for survival in academia. My broader goals are to foster community among marginalized scholars, and to advocate for change in academia. I write frequently for the blog, but it also features the voices of others from different social locations, disciplines, and career stages. There are many voices and many perspectives, which is likely why the blog gets a fair amount of readership. Indeed, we are approaching half a million visits since I created the blog two years ago.
The Risks And Rewards of Intellectual Activism
I should note that there are negative sides of this work. Because of the trauma of grad school, I have lived in fear since I created Conditionally Accepted. I fear that some student, colleague, administrator, trustee, alum, or member of the community will take issue with something that I have written. That trauma has prevented me from seeing that my current institution actually hired me because of my critical perspective and advocacy, not despite them. You can’t have an active online presence in this era and expect no search committee to find it. Fortunately, the messages that I have gotten are that this work is an important service to the profession, and perhaps counts toward tenure. I have received positive feedback from senior colleagues, my dean, and recently found out that the new president of my university, Dr. Ronald Crutcher, actually reads my blog.
Unfortunately, some of my Black women colleagues in sociology (e.g., Dr. Zandria F. Robison, Dr. Saida Grundy) have found themselves under attack by the public, only to find that their institutions will not protect them. Scholars, particularly women of color who are race and/or gender scholars, who dare to challenge the status quo publicly, are seen as a threat that must be neutralized. And, institutions that value dollars more than Black women’s scholarship are quick to oblige. We wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for these risks.
So, more recently, I have been thinking about how to best support intellectual activists since it seems we’re on our own. Given the support of my own institution, I feel as though I’m in a relatively privileged position, and can use that privilege to support the most vulnerable scholars in the academy. Specifically, I briefly advanced a #ThankAPublicScholar campaign in light of the risks of intellectual activism, on top of it being a thankless labor. And, later, I wrote a blog post advocating for a bystander intervention approach to supporting intellectual activists; we are all responsible for protecting them from public backlash and threats to academic freedom.
But, for now, we’re truly on our own to navigate this work. I hope this conversation, and future conversations, plants seeds for the necessary changes to support intellectual activism.
Over the summer, I met with a colleague who works at our university’s Center for Civic Engagement. We talked about recent and upcoming vacations, life in the city, and finding community on campus. Eventually, she shifted the conversation to asking how she could better support me as a faculty member, in particular, in helping me to actually utilize the Center’s resources. Since we first met, back when I interviewed for my current position, she has known that I am activist at heart, and wish to engage the campus and local communities in my research and teaching. But, now starting my third year at the university, I give the same excuse for not doing so: fear remains a part of my everyday reality as a tenure-track professor. She understood because I’ve emphasized that I would be slow to adopt community engagement in my work; but, she also asked what, if anything, can we do to change the culture that steers junior faculty away from relevant, accessible, and creative work.
I will acknowledge that my fear and anxiety are on the extreme side relative to the average tenure-track professor. I readily respond to reassuring statements such as, “you’re doing fine,” pointing out, “but, I’m a Black queer tenure-track professor who blogs critically about the academy.” My identities and my politics were known to my department and university upon interviewing and ultimately hiring me. I will admit to a modest amount of paranoia, but I ask that we also be honest that racist and homophobic biases play out in unexpected and subtle ways. (That is, my paranoia isn’t so unreasonable considering there are interpersonal and institutional factors that actually disadvantage me professionally and personally.)
More generally, I bear the burden of fear and doubt because the institution itself does not explicitly reward activism, advocacy, and community engagement. I appreciate informally being told teaching a community-based learning class looks good, or that open access research is the way of the future for scholars. And, at a minimum, there is little sense that such efforts would hurt one professionally (though I remain skeptical when such claims are made regarding activism). But, formally, these initiatives are not valued; they are not explicitly mentioned in the tenure expectations outlined in our faculty handbook, nor is there a longstanding tradition of favorably evaluating community engagement and advocacy. As I told my colleague, it’s great that the Center offers so much to faculty who engage the community in their work — even offering a small stipend to those who go through training on community-based teaching; but, short of the institutions explicit valuing of such efforts (i.e., counting it toward tenure), only a few brave souls will venture into them.
Beyond my frustration with the inconsistency between formal values and informal values, I am annoyed at the obvious contradiction between the university’s claims to promote diversity, accessibility, and community engagement and its actual practices. Like many colleges and universities, my institution has made clear that it wants to change and improve the world; doing so has required changing itself, its mission and values, and its practices. I certainly applaud the university for the changes it has made, especially within the past five years.
But, short of explicitly supporting junior faculty who aim to engage the community, and promote diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, it facilitates a conservatizing effect of the tenure track. Absent of messages to the contrary, the traditional expectations are echoed loudly: “keep your head down”; “don’t rock the boat”; “publish or perish”; “avoid service until after tenure”; “be quiet“; “know your place.” And, besides being apolitical, seen-but-not-heard, publishing machines, junior faculty are pressured to conform to the tried-and-true approach to get tenure. Thus, on one hand, while touting change and all of their efforts to promote it, universities are also producing cohort after cohort of junior scholars who may avoid making change. For many of us, this comes after years of “playing it safe” in graduate school. And, I fear, for many of us, we become so accustomed to conforming and suppressing anything deemed too radical that we simply keep doing so beyond tenure. I’m not entirely optimistic that radical professors “come out of the closet” the day they receive the good news.
I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into the trap of fearful conformity. I came in like a lion, roaring that I would only do the tenure-track my way. But, right on cue, I became a meek lamb, obsessing over self-presentation, avoiding certain forms of service and advocacy that I deemed too political or radical, and fighting so hard to stay visible and relevant to my discipline. Recently, I’ve even grown tired of hearing myself verbalize fear that I’d be denied tenure over what I write on this blog. (And, really, the joke is on me because everyone seems to know who I am and what I value, but the university keeps inviting me back each fall.) But, the conservatizing effect will remain for new faculty until universities explicitly value community service, social justice, and advocacy. Perhaps universities would change a lot faster if they didn’t implicitly pressure faculty to conform and avoid change-making.
There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia. Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career. While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define. The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor. But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.
The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure. Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example. Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors). For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain. Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.
As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling. Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others. Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women. Women of color know well the status of being a token. Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever. While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.
To be completely honest with you, I am scared. I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search. Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality. There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics. The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.
Strike one: I am black. I am queer. I am fat. (That’s already 3 strikes, right?) Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism. Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog). I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars. But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.
This is uncharted territory. That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man. With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics. With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways). But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.
Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available. On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism. As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models. I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today. At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism. I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility? If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?
Paving The Way
I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general. In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC. I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program. After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture. My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way. Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.
While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students. I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded? will I ever give the suits a rest? do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself? A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless). Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.
But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark. I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success. But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together. I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security. But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.
How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors? Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”? I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model. I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general. I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure. I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia. But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream. I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.
I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.
I drank the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”
When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.
Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.
The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom
I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!
Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committee members’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, that I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken queer Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.
Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass all distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my communities.
Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.
When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job. Ok, end of rant.