A Better Way To End Sexual Violence On College Campuses

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Shankar is an associate professor of sociology at the Mount Royal University. Her main areas of interest are the sociology of gender, intersectional feminist theories, critical race theory and the sociology of health and illness. Her current research projects concern individualized and gendered constructions of risk and responsibility during the H1N1 Pandemic in Alberta in 2009 and within sexual assault policies and programs on campuses.


Over the years, I have found myself referring students to services and polices for sexual violence that, in the end, are insufficient. Countless news stories echo the difficulty students have had gaining access to adequate services and policies. And perhaps in response to such public attention, public campaigns against campus sexual violence, including the “I believe you” campaign and bystander invention pledges have increased.

But these anti-sexual violence campaigns tend to remain on a rhetorical level. That is, they do not require any systematic action from the university itself as an institution; rather, they too often download the responsibility of addressing sexual violence onto other students. While such campaigns do help to facilitate much needed conversations on sexual violence, what is also needed is the development of critical, responsive and evidence-based sexual assault policies and protocols.

Currently, many universities do the bare minimum in this regard. In many cases, their sexual assault policies are largely constructed in response to state mandates such as Title IX in the United States and the Sexual Violence and Harassment Plan Act in the province of Ontario, Canada. These policies and protocols tend to be created in the interests of the institutions rather than those of the students, faculty members and/or staff.

Moreover, the job of creating policies and protocols tends to be given to administrators hired by the institution to protect its interests, such as the university’s legal team or the human resources department. In other words, those assigned with the job of creating policies on sexual violence are also frequently responsible for protecting the university’s reputation and standing, creating an obvious and disturbing conflict of interest.

As such, it is hardly surprising that the policies and protocols created tend to protect the universities and do little (or may even be actively harmful) for those subjected to sexual violence. For example, according to CBC News, a student at the University of Brandon in Canada, who was recently attempting to access services for sexual violence, was pressured to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited her from talking to anyone outside of the university other than a counselor about her sexual assault.

In light of these dynamics, what can universities do going forward?

First, we must recognize that universities’ interest and students’ interest are not mutually exclusive. We need a fundamental shift in our approach to sexual violence policies and protocols. Essentially, we need to accept that what is best for students is also best for the university. For instance, administrative transparency about incidence statistics, open discussion about the weakness of the policies, and critical analysis of the services that universities currently provide — or lack — can start to identify the ways in which many institutions of higher learning are complicit in sexual violence. These kinds of practices can also start to dismantle the structural barriers that, at times, prevent victims from reporting and getting assistance they need. Without an acknowledgement and a review of the ways in which many of our institutions enable sexual violence, policies and protocols will continue to fail those directly affected by it.

Second, universities need to use the latest academic research about sexual violence. It is particularly disconcerting how many colleges and universities are developing policies and protocols on sexual violence without considering the latest research on the subject. In drafting sexual assault policies, universities tend to refer to (or even blatantly copy) other institutions’ policies. Yet on most campuses, libraries provide access to comprehensive research on sexual violence and faculty members may have research expertise in sexual violence or related areas. And even if faculty members do not have substantive research expertise, academics are experts in identifying and reviewing relevant research. Despite this access to knowledge, however, institutional policies and practices continue to be developed without meaningful attention to and incorporation of the body of research on sexual violence prevention and best practices.

This is particularly salient when it comes to policies and services aimed at the intersections of race, sexual orientation, and gender. For instance, while not always, university policies and services on sexual violence in North America tend to be more responsive to educated middle-class woman who have the social and cultural capital required to navigate the bureaucracy of sexual violence reporting protocols and services. Thus, people without these forms of cultural capital are left vulnerable when failed by the university policies that are inadequate in addressing diverse student bodies. Research shows that racialized, low-income and transgender students are more likely to be subjected to violence. When those who create sexual assault policies remain ignorant of the research that readily exists on intersectionality, it can only be viewed as willful ignorance.

Third, include qualified faculty members, students, administrators and community members to construct, evaluate and revise sexual assault policies and protocols. Universities tend to have faculty members who study sexual violence, and/or the intersections among race, sexual orientation and gender. Yet they often exclude those scholars from policy development, so the consultations tend to be superficial acts designed to add legitimacy after the policies and protocols have been drafted, rather than a process of inviting input and generating critical discussion at the ground level. It is troubling that many universities readily invoke the work of their researchers, teachers, students and staff members to promote themselves while completely discounting that same expertise when it comes to the creation of sexual assault policies and protocols. To this end, I recommend meaningful inclusion and adherence to the advice and suggestions provided by these parties.

Finally, complete annual evaluations of policies and services and publicly disseminate the findings. Policy evaluation and revision need to be done annually, and the results of such annual re-evaluations should be made available to the university and the wider community as a whole. That will allow both people on the campus as well as the public to gauge the effectiveness of the institution’s efforts to address sexual violence. Currently, universities keep much of that information private or invoke a form of plausible deniability by not collecting adequate data because they are worried that public disclosure of sexual violence statistics will sully their reputation and dissuade potential students. But if universities are serious about addressing the silence and stigma around sexual violence, they need to start by being transparent.

Moreover, as institutions committed to producing public knowledge, universities have an obligation to lead the inevitably difficult discussions about sexual violence. Through thoughtful engagements with the issue and clear explanations and analyses of sexual violence on campuses (for example, comparison of on-campus sexual violence rates to general rates or which actions are included or excluded from their statistics), universities can facilitate a cultural shift away from the prevailing silence surrounding sexual violence.

In conclusion, universities need to step up, be proactive, and start taking actions that are positive and meaningful instead of drawing on the protectionist logic and disingenuous rhetoric that currently fuels their sexual assault policies and protocols.

Nondisclosure Agreements Silence Survivors Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Sheila Liming is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where she teaches classes on American literature, theory and media history. Her public writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Silencing of Sexual Violence Survivors

Back when I was a freshman in college many years ago, something happened. This something involved someone who was a member of my college’s faculty and me, and it resulted in my filing a complaint relating to allegations of sexual assault. But now, 15 years later, I am compelled to rely on those kinds of ambiguous nouns — something and someone — in lieu of specifics. At the behest of college administrators and representatives, I signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents me from sharing anything more specific about that something and that someone.

At the time, I understood my silence to be a necessary cost levied in exchange for protection and support. I brought my complaint to a trusted faculty member who, in turn, forwarded it to the appropriate administrator. That administrator then told me that I had two options. I could take my complaint to the police, thereby exposing myself to a public trial, newspaper reporters’ inquiries and the scrutiny of our entire college-town community. Or I could let the college handle the investigation, as long as I was willing to aid that investigation by keeping contractually quiet.

I was 18 years old, living more than 1,000 miles from home. Save for that one trusted faculty member, I had not told anyone about the something, not even my roommate or my parents. So I agreed to a private, internal investigation and signed the nondisclosure agreement — before speaking to a lawyer, before receiving any impartial advice and before having the opportunity to tell my story to anyone who might have been in a position to offer me support.

What Are NDAs?

Nondisclosure agreements — or NDAs — are legal agreements that are employed with the aim of protecting sensitive information. In business, “sensitive information” may amount to trade secrets or specific details about a product. In higher education, colleges and universities have historically turned to NDAs when investigating allegations of sexual violence or misconduct.

NDAs typically mandate that both parties involved in the complaint remain silent so as to avoid impeding a college’s investigation (which sometimes includes the gathering of witness testimony). And in order to further discourage those involved from speaking, NDAs often specify that financial penalties and personal liability are likely to result if either party breaks the agreement. (See, for example, The Washington Post’s coverage of the subject in the context of former presidential candidate Herman Cain.)

But in recent years, critics of the practice have pointed out that such confidentiality agreements stifle student speech and prevent victims — be they the accusers or the accused — from speaking out and sharing their sides of the story. What’s more, as a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article explains, NDAs place comprehensive bans on speech that extend beyond investigative proceedings and remain in effect long after the details of a case have gone public.

That means that victims of sexual violence are unable to shape the narrative that gets told and retold about them — instead, they are held hostage by the whims of gossip and hearsay. This situation has prompted some people to ask whether there might be such a thing as too much confidentiality, since, as one expert explains in the Inside Higher Ed article, “Colleges and universities rarely if ever intervene to correct the public record — even if they were to obtain the consent of both parties.”

Citing those same concerns, in addition to mounting public pressure, some colleges and universities have recently moved to discontinue the practice of requiring NDAs for those people wishing to file complaints of sexual violence or misconduct. American University, for instance, announced last year that it would no longer require students to sign them when filing complaints of misconduct against other students.

But as a more recent series of articles in The Guardian points out, NDAs are particularly common — and thus particularly pernicious — where student complaints against faculty or staff members are concerned. In such cases, NDAs “allow alleged perpetrators to move to other institutions where they could offend again,” thus “masking” the very prevalence of issues of harassment, violence or misconduct — all in the name of confidentiality.

What to Know and What to Do

What all higher education professionals must understand, then, is that such practices governing confidentiality are still very much the norm today. Most institutions still rely on them, which is why it is important that faculty and staff members read and acquaint themselves with institutional policies regarding confidentiality and voluntary disclosure. But, even more important, they need to take an active role in communicating their understandings of those policies to students.

I am not saying that folks in higher education need to memorize their campus’s policies and approach all interactions armed with chapter and verse. Rather, now a faculty member myself, I am arguing in favor of a heightened awareness that may permit university professionals to engage candidly and responsibly with student victims. If a student approaches you with the expectation of confidentiality, you need to inform that person of your ability to listen and, perhaps, act in confidence.

For example, if you hail from one of the many professional disciplines that make you subject to mandatory reporting laws (like law, medicine or social work), or if you serve in the capacity of a campus security authority — which, under Title IX, may also require you to report — you need to be honest in explaining that you may be unable to comply with a student’s wishes regarding confidentiality. A colleague at my institution’s law school recently told me that she was thinking of putting a sign on her door to declare her status as a mandatory reporter so that students would be able to consider their options before approaching her. Similarly, if you know that official student complaints on your campus are likely to be met with secrecy in the form of compulsory nondisclosure agreements, you must be up front and explain as much to a student beforehand.

Here’s why a willingness to be both honest and informed matters: what followed my decision to sign that NDA some 15 years ago were, frankly, the worst four months of my life. I was removed from the course that I was taking with the faculty member in question and instead enrolled in an independent study course, conducted by another faculty adviser who had no experience in the topic and little direct interest in overseeing my studies anyway.

Meanwhile, my absence in the class had not gone unnoticed, and rumors proliferated — rumors that I was contractually bound to accept with good grace since I was not allowed to talk about what had happened. The administrator who had dealt with my case had warned me that my violating the NDA “could compromise the investigation or could violate someone’s privacy and expose me and the college to liability.” Those were not my college administrator’s exact words, but they are the words of confidentiality agreements used by higher education institutions today.

There are alternatives, though. American University, for instance, now favors a confidentiality agreement that includes a First Amendment rights statement. The statement is designed to assure victims that confidentiality is the responsibility of their university but not necessarily required by them.

Preventing sexual violence and misconduct on college campuses requires a sincere commitment to acknowledging that sexual violence and misconduct do indeed happen — that they have been happening for some time now, that they are happening right now. Nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements have historically helped to keep us, as university professionals, from acknowledging that. Yet in order to imagine better, fairer alternatives to NDAs, we must start by facing the facts concerning their ubiquity and prevalence on our own campuses.

Advice For Academics On Using Email More Effectively

Note: this blog was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism. She runs the blog Get a Life, PhD and tweets @tanyaboza.

Three Rules for Email

Tanya Golash-BozaEmail has become a fact of life for academics. We all know that it facilitates communication, yet it can also be a tremendous distraction. As a tenured professor with more than my share of committee work and students, I receive about 100 emails every weekday. Without a system to respond to them, I would quickly fall behind. Instead, I finish out each week with a zero inbox. (See more about that here.)

If you are not ready to take the plunge and get to a zero inbox, you can still minimize the extent to which email controls your day. I offer three rules that will help you manage your email on a daily basis.

Rule #1: Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. I bet you have heard (and ignored) this advice. Many of us roll over in bed each morning, pick up our smartphones and begin scrolling through our email before doing anything else. I will admit it: I do it at times, as well, even though I know I shouldn’t.

But when you check your email first thing in the morning, you are attending to everyone else’s needs before even thinking about what is most important for you to accomplish that day. When you check your email, you are reminded of the paperwork you need to finish for grant applications, the papers you need to grade for classes, the bills you mustn’t forget to pay and the sibling you need to call, among other concerns. Because of the way memory works by association, each email that you open, or even delete, brings a flood of thoughts to your head.

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up in the morning and see what thoughts come to your head if you don’t check your email first thing? Wouldn’t it be lovely to wake up your kids and have your coffee without thinking about the many mundane and stressful tasks that await you? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit and ponder what you’d like to accomplish in the day before finding out six new things people want you to do? Wouldn’t it be amazing to meditate first thing in the morning?

Usually, when we check our email, we are reminded of all of the tasks we need to accomplish, which can be distracting. Sometimes, however, email can provoke much stronger emotions. On rare occasions, these emails are great news: a book contract, acceptance of an article or an invitation to give a talk with a great honorarium. Other times, we get much less pleasant news via email: a student questioning a grade, a superior asking us to serve on yet another committee or some other request that somehow raises our ire. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you are opening a Pandora’s box and might find a message in there that could completely derail your day.

Wouldn’t you like to start your day focusing on something you see as valuable and important before opening those floodgates?

Instead of opening your email first thing in the morning, set aside a specific time of morning when you will dedicate 30 minutes or an hour to respond to important emails. Then set aside another time in the afternoon when you will take care of the remaining emails. In other words, respond to your emails intentionally instead of each time you get an email notification.

Rule #2: Close your email and all notifications while you are writing. Of course, you need to check email at some point during the day to manage the massive influx. That, however, does not mean that you need to check it all the time. You certainly do not need to check email while you are writing.

To write, you need to focus. To focus, you need to avoid distraction. Imagine yourself fully immersed in thought and composing the perfect sentence when you catch a glimpse of a notification on your computer or hear a little buzz from your phone. Now, instead of focusing on your writing, you are reminded of other tasks that you must complete — emotions that you feel with regard to certain people or worries you have over a pending deadline.

The solution to this is pretty straightforward: turn off those notifications. Both your phone and your computer should have “Do not disturb” settings. On a Mac, you can turn off all notifications under “Settings.” Your phone, your tablet and your PC should have similar options.

If you set aside 30 minutes or an hour each day to write, you can give yourself permission to be unavailable over phone, email or social media during that time. If you teach, I presume you turn off your phone during that time. Do the same when you are writing.

It may seem productive to be multitasking: alternately responding to emails, checking your social media, writing and preparing class all at the same time. However, it is not. It is much more productive to set aside specific times of the day for each task, giving it your undivided attention. (I explain one way to do this here.)

Rule #3: Unplug every night. Decide on a time each evening when you will unplug yourself from the Internet. Just as it is not a good idea for you to be on your screen first thing in the morning, it also is not a good idea for you to be on your screen just before going to bed.

I recommend that about an hour before your bedtime, you put your laptop, tablet and phone away. If possible, keep all those devices out of your bedroom. At the very least, keep them out of arm’s reach when you are in bed.

In order to have a restful night of sleep, you need time away from devices that light up. Scientists have found that these devices send a subtle signal to your brain that it is not yet time to sleep.

These devices also send much less subtle signals. You may be just about to go to bed when you decide to check your email one last time, only to find out that your latest paper has been rejected. Now, instead of peacefully going to sleep, you toss and turn all night worrying about your publication record. Just because we now can get news instantaneously does not mean we should.

In sum, in order for email to have less control over your life, you need to start to take control of it. This article has provided three ideas for how you can establish boundaries. I’d love to hear from you about other ways you’ve found to be helpful in setting them.

Advice For Dept. Chairs: “Beware of the Curse Of Small Things”

PlainspokenNote: the following blog post was originally posted on our Inside Higher Ed column. Professor Plainspoken (a pseudonym) has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She is committed to helping young professors succeed in academe. Plainspoken belongs to House Tyrell and is looking forward to the defeat of Queen Cersei, the Evil One.

Beware of the Curse Of Small Things

In a previous article, I wrote about the challenges and rewards of chairing an academic department and offered my post-chair analysis of my performance. In this essay, I talk about the skill set needed for drama-free delivery of your curriculum and reasonably happy colleagues.

We all know the saying “the devil is in the details.” It means that sometimes the success or failure of projects, careers, parties or performances hinges on some detail that was either poorly planned or neglected. Once I took an exam to be hired by a large corporation that used bubble sheets. I brought with me, as instructed, two pencils for the task. I carefully selected them, and they were freshly sharpened and gleaming. If only I had thought to check whether they were No. 2 pencils. The proctors for the exam, who were also human resources executives, gave me that tsk-tsk look as they handed me the stubby in-house pencils. Ultimately, the wrong leads dashed my dreams of carrying a platinum card by American Express and cruising in a European luxury automobile.

What a blessing. Instead, I found my way to the professoriate, where I could abandon concerns about the little things. I think, and write, about big things. Little things be damned. I love being a professor. I can read as many books as I can fit into the day. Tender humans come into my life every year, and over the next four years, I watch them try on their adult selves. Then I get to celebrate the unveiling of the first model of the grown-up they will become. As I greet the parents and tell them what I know about their offspring, I am grateful for my small role in the production of said young adult. Grand stuff.

What I do not have to do as a regular faculty member is order office equipment, review budgets, schedule courses, sign student forms or shoulder any of the other duties that make academic life work. The chair and departmental administrators take care of all of that for me. Yay!

But when you become department chair, you have to shoulder those kinds of duties and more. You have to sign numerous documents — graduation audits, major declaration forms, purchase invoices. Working out class schedules is not difficult, but it is tedious. Minutes, hours and days go by as you run as fast as you can on the paperwork treadmill. Make no mistake — taking care of those duties matters.

Here is the fundamental challenge for a department chair: you cannot trust any process to go smoothly for you. Yes, you sent in the course schedule with all of the preferred times for your faculty members. It comes back to you with many errors. You return a corrected schedule, and when it comes back again, you don’t check it because you are confident that everything is golden. After all, you cannot insult the scheduling czar by sending back the same corrections as before.

But as registration begins, your faculty members soon learn that their course schedules are not as ordered. Yikes! Caterwauling ensues. You wonder whether irate colleagues are going to jump you in the parking lot. You stammer through excuses and keep saying, “I’ll fix it,” as your colleagues complain, “Why is scheduling so hard for you?” and “I told you about my weekly Pilates class weeks ago.” Ouch! I suggest that you examine iterations of the teaching schedule carefully. And ask a colleague and the administrative staff to proofread for you. Share the blame!

And now we come to Professor Plainspoken’s second maxim for chairing an academic department: teaching schedules you must handle with extreme care. Check, double-check and triple-check. And always beware. Mistakes in scheduling are Satan’s tools — for ensuring that you always look like a fool.

Also, when managing teaching schedules and room assignments, never trust that a single communiqué will do. Communicate with the registrar’s office verbally after you send each draft of the course plan. Using two forms of communication should help to guarantee that the correct information is received and understood. The curse of small things is that tiny things, when they go wrong, are one big thing. Unfortunately, the big thing then becomes a key indicator of your competence to your department colleagues. It is understandable, since it is usually the small things that make a difference in the way you spend your days. One or two small stumbles are forgotten — more than a few, especially when you are a nontraditional chair (e.g., a woman of color), seems especially egregious. In time, the curse of small things lifts as you determine the most efficient and foolproof way of getting things done.

We may blame the curse for most of our stresses. Someone once said, “The best way to reduce stress is to stop screwing up.” I think I repeated that one to myself every day. Screw-ups are inevitable. The key is finding ways to avoid beating yourself up about them.

Would-be department chairs need what I often lacked in my position as chair: perspective. Did anyone ever end up teaching a horrible schedule because of a mistake I made? No. But they almost endured an awful schedule. The almost was enough for me to keep a running tally on my bureaucratic near misses. I was treating myself like an air-traffic controller. A near miss was cause for concern about my fitness for the job. I wanted to execute every duty with precision and perfection. Ha! My dentist, who would spend hours reshaping a tooth after a filling, told me a patient said to him after being in his chair for hours, “Perfectionism is the enemy of good enough” (his modification of the saying “The perfect is the enemy of the good”).

Perfectionism. It’s the hobgoblin of marginalized people. It is also the result of parents, who — in their effort to inspire you to do your best — dwelled on your mistakes far more than your successes. I am impatient with myself when learning anything new. I want to get it right right now!

When you add to the mix of perfectionism and impatience the competitiveness of academe, it is a nasty brew. Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that being kind and patient with myself was self-indulgent. I am unlearning this now. Should you become chair, you cannot afford not to be kind and patient with yourself.

And now, the last of the maxims for today from Professor Plainspoken: to yourself you must be kind and nurture a healthy state of mind. The curse of small things you can prevent, and your days as chair you will never lament.

Mourning My Academic Career

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. (Many of her academic publications are available through open access here). She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and at Patheos. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Feeling Like a Failure

Have you ever looked back and realized that you were grieving, but did not know it at the time?


My bittersweet return to Berkeley.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a journal issue containing an article that I had published based on my dissertation research. I almost started crying; I felt like such a failure and an impostor, there was no way I could feel good about that publication. Since then, I have written more for Conditionally Accepted about how my expectations and goals around my academic career have been changing (like not working over the weekend, or becoming a sex educator [pt. 1, pt. 2, and pt. 3]). But, I still think that there is a major piece that I have missed.

Recently, I received a bunch of notifications as I logged into Facebook one morning. I had been tagged in a post by a colleague, announcing the publication of a book in which I had published a chapter. This actually caught me off guard. Since deciding go to #altac over three years ago (see pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, and pt. 4 on this), I had carefully pruned my social media presence. I unfollowed colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, keeping connections only with those whom I considered friends, or whose work I was so interested in that it did not matter whether I felt uncomfortable being reminded that I was, by necessity, backing out of the academic job market.

I spent three years applying for full-time jobs before deciding that part-time work was okay for now, and in fact, it was better: I could focus more on writing, which I had always wanted to do, and on sex education, a newfound passion and my career Plan B. Nothing to be sad about, right?

This time, however, when my Facebook notifications went nuts, I decided to dig a little deeper. I remembered how I did not have any publications appear in 2015, which felt weird given that I had made a habit of steady publishing since I was a graduate student. Now, it was 2016, and I had a chapter appearing in a book that I was unutterably proud of which to be a part. The book, about teaching fairy tales, represents something that I am passionate about on several levels: the subject of fairy tales, the importance of teaching as a way to open minds, and the focus on gender and sexuality that I brought to that course in particular.

I was so excited for this book to arrive in the mail, which happened over a week after the Facebook notifications storm. I held it, and snapped some silly selfies with it. Those went on social media, too. And all the while, I thought: why was there a noticeable gap in my publication schedule? Why did I notice in the first place? Why do I even care? I haven’t turned my back on academia forever, but let’s just say that it would take a damn near perfect job to rope me back in on a full-time level.

That’s when it hit me: of course, I would step back from publishing the things I would normally publish. For example, the rest of my dissertation chapters as articles because there is absolutely no reason for me to publish an academic book right now. I did not realize it then, but that was a sign of grief.

Signs of Grief

Of course, I would channel my energy into teaching because I love it. And, I would channel energy into my #altac/sex ed career because I love it, and it uses my current skill set and knowledge base while pushing me to expand in other ways; I can grow it into a career that pays at least some of the bills, maybe someday most or all.

Of course, I had taken a break from doing the types of things full-time academics would do. I skipped attending and presenting at the American Folklore Society meeting last year, for the first time since I gave a paper there over a decade ago as an undergraduate.

Of course, I accepted requests to do peer reviews for journals with ambivalence.

Of course, I responded to well-meaning friends who sent me job postings with terse, polite notes stating that I was not looking for full-time academic work, but thanking them thinking of me.

And, being the stubborn workaholic that I am, I only really stopped trying to do it all in 2015 (the year when I didn’t attend AFS; the year when I had no publications come out), despite ostensibly being #altac for three years now. That is how long it took for me to slowly reach the truth of the matter. I was mourning my academic career, what it could have been, and what it likely never will be.

For over a year now, the part of me that was quietly sad about the future that I thought I had warred with the part of me that is achievement-driven-no-matter-what. And finally, when I learned to let some of that need to achieve go, I was able to be quiet and calm enough to look around, notice the life I created for myself, and feel the sadness that had been present for some time.

I should note that I am not one of those people who mourn easily or quickly. In this case, it took some other life changes to jostle me into noticing how I was actually feeling, as well as the newfound ability to sit still for more than a few moments at a time (thanks, regular yoga practice!).

Why Grieve?

The dream of a tenure-track job that is normalized for many grad students is not accessible to all of us. Yet, for those of us who internalize it as ideal, reaching the point where we can shed it and aspire to other things without feeling like failures is challenging. And because we spend so long in grad school, at least five years and maybe even ten or more, it means we have spent a long time trying on these aspirations, getting used to them, planning how to achieve them. Thus, it makes sense that we would need time to step away from them and eventually mourn them.

I believe that it is normal to feel sad about unmet goals and abandoned dreams. The longer we have spent wanting something, or working toward accomplishing it, the longer we may need to unpack the grief that may quietly (or disruptively) accompany its loss. Yet this is not something that we talk openly about or even make space to discuss. Part of the cruel situation of leaving academia is that when we leave, we leave our communities. Perhaps we still count colleagues as our friends, but the impact of leaving (whether we choose to go #altac or simply “didn’t make it” full-time) is that we often have less access to the community than when we started.

As a folklorist, I know that grieving is frequently a communal process. Look at the worldwide examples of funeral customs, mourning songs, and rites of passage that accompany the end of life as well as other major life transitions. When we process major changes, we tend to do so best with the support of our community. The internet has provided a community for many #altac scholars, but we have not necessarily developed the customs or rituals to help ease the transition and validate the sad or ambivalent feelings generated by occupying a liminal space.

Even with me remaining friends with many of my colleagues, I still had trouble recognizing that I needed time, space, and support to grieve my career. I can only wonder how other scholars are handling this same transition, and hope that they are reaching out when they are able.

The Opportunity

Around the time I was pinged on Facebook regarding the publication of the new book, I received word that I would be teaching at UC Berkeley for one semester. It is not a tenure-track job; rather, it is taking over the classes of a tenured professor while he is on leave for one semester.

I did my undergrad at Berkeley. I will be teaching in the program in which I first became enamored of folklore, and where I was mentored and encouraged to pursue graduate work.

It is a bizarre, temporary little victory: I am returning to the Bay Area for 5 months, and might even make enough money to afford living there. I get to teach in my home discipline, and perhaps inspire some young adults the way I was inspired all those years ago. But best of all, I get to do so with my #altac mentality, my understanding that maybe I won’t land my perfect professor gig anytime soon, or ever, and that it is okay to have some fun along the way.

Will my time in Berkeley help me grieve, or move through the mourning process better or differently, or perhaps even complete the process? As of this writing, on the cusp of the spring semester’s start, I have no idea. If nothing else, I think the experience will help reinforce for me the reality that being #altac does not mean never getting access to prestigious, rigorous, or neat opportunities. But what I have learned recently while mourning what my career was “supposed” to be is that grief is not linear. Just as my career did not follow the track I thought it would, grieving does not follow the simple “do it and move it” pattern that I hoped it would.


Grieving isn’t fun, and it is even weirder when you do not know that you are doing it in the first place. But giving myself the time to grieve my academic career — even if I just thought I was doing a bad job of churning dissertation chapters into articles — turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Academia may not have made room for me, but I made room for it within myself, in a way that I can live with. That’s been worth the emotional turmoil and the wait. Hopefully I can say the same of my time in Berkeley, come full circle after all these years.

(Marginalized) Professors Were Already Being Watched

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

Photo credit: Intel Free Press

“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me

Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.

That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.

In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.

I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”

First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.

On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.

Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?

A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.

The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.

The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.

Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students.  The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.

Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)

I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.

Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.

Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.

On Living With Cancer In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Margaret Meningioma (a pseudonym) is a social scientist at a university in the Midwest. She is one of the estimated 77,670 people in the United States who will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year. She decided against radiation and had brain surgery in June. She is still recovering and discovering her next new normal. For more information on brain tumors, including symptoms and sources of support, visit The American Brain Tumor Association.


A New Normal

Months ago, I met with a radiation oncologist about my brain tumor. He suggested radiation, which would hopefully arrest the tumor’s growth. When I told him that I could not live with the medication that I was on and the symptoms that I was experiencing for the rest of my life, he assured me I would. He told me that I would discover a “new normal.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I am an academic.”” A new normal would not do.

After 10 years on the tenure track, normal for me often included starting before 7 a.m. It is not that I worked incessantly — I thought of myself as someone who had a good semblance of balance — but that I could work whenever I wanted. If I wanted to pull an all-nighter or attend a conference with a full day of presentations and an evening of social events, I could do so without a problem. I could sit down and write from sunrise to sunset or squeeze in a last review before I called it a day.

Even while serving at the same time in a more administrative position, as director of graduate studies, I had almost complete control over how my day went down. One of the things I loved most about my job as an academic was the autonomy. I was sad — and angry — at the thought of losing it.

What I did not realize until earlier this year was that this autonomy was not only predicated on my position but also my health. In the months before my diagnosis, doing the things that I loved had become more difficult. My concentration was not what it used to be, making it challenging to read an entire article or to follow multiple conversations in my graduate classes. I was forgetting things as simple as where I parked my car at the local grocery store. I had a constant headache. I would come home and sleep, completely tapped out, unable to find the energy that I once had to cook dinner for my family or to do anything after we ate. Maybe I was depressed, or stressed? My mother recommended breathing exercises. My doctor tried prescription after prescription. Nothing helped. I fell farther and farther behind at work.

This was not the first time that keeping up at work was a struggle or that my autonomy was undermined. I started graduate school a month before my son’s first birthday. Throughout my classes, comprehensive exams and dissertation, I had to organize my work around motherhood. Having less time than my peers, I tried to use it wisely. I also cut myself slack. My child was more important than my career, and I was convinced that I could be a successful academic without sacrificing our relationship or my son’s well-being. As he grew, and I graduated, the demands of work and motherhood shifted, but I was always comfortable with the compromises I made in either realm. The truth is, I had never known what being an academic was like without a child. I had never had to transition from one orientation to another. I had never had to find a new normal.

As I drove home from that appointment with the radiation oncologist, I wondered whether I would have to quit my job. My life and my livelihood was my brain. I depended on it functioning, when and where I needed it to. How would I continue at the pace that I was going? Would I ever catch up? Would I ever be able to keep up? Would I still be an academic if I was not actively teaching, writing and publishing? Who would I be without my career?

I threw myself a giant pity party.

At some point, I turned a corner, transitioning from the sixth to the seventh stage of grief, and I began to accept the things that I could not change. I tapped into the spirit of compromise that I had when my son was young. Rather than fighting my body when it told me it was done, I began listening to it. I learned that if I took a short nap — at home or on my office floor — I often had the energy to tackle more tasks later in the day. I tried to finish things long before the deadline so that it would not be as catastrophic if I were not feeling well on any particular day. I learned to say no and to ask for extensions without fretting about disappointing people. I worked when I felt well and took it easy when I did not. I began to see a counselor who specializes in helping people with chronic medical conditions.

Things changed at home, too. I felt no guilt if we ate takeout or the house was not clean. I encouraged my now teenage son to think about ways to lighten my parenting load. In the same way that I had always protected time for motherhood, I protected time for my health. Slowly but surely, I was discovering a new normal. Once I started to work with my circumstances rather than against them, I began to feel productive again. I had renewed energy and optimism, and I was better able to do my work.

Sometimes terrible things are simply terrible, but, for me, misfortune has a silver lining. Less time to work has meant more time with the people whom I love and significantly better productivity when I am working. An uncertainty about what the future holds has taught me to appreciate the present and to focus on what I have accomplished rather than what I have left to do. These are valuable gifts. I have also learned to be kind to myself and to let go of my staunch conceptions of what it means to be a good academic, to be productive and to be successful.

Without a doubt, this entire experience has been easier for me than for many others because I have tenure. I have health care and a paycheck. I only have to worry about making time for appointments, not whether I can afford the care. I only have to worry about fulfilling my obligations, not whether my output will be deemed worthy of tenure. I work a nine-month contract. Although it is unusual to be away from work or the office over the summer, I am not committed to anyone during those months. Those are things I do not take for granted.

Life can change in an instant. Today, for me, it is a brain tumor. For other academics, it might be a difficult pregnancy or a parent with dementia. Tomorrow, it might be a foreclosure, a divorce or a partner with cancer. Regardless of what might arrive and pull you away from work and what is normal to you, I recommend that you resist struggling against the current. Instead, find a way to swim with it, to harness whatever it might have to offer. Fighting against the circumstances of our life — trying to continue full steam ahead despite difficult conditions or illness — does more harm than good. It is exhausting and inefficient. Besides, you never know what you will discover if you begin to approach work and life differently than you did before. If life requires a new normal, I hope you embrace the opportunity to establish one.

How Administrators Can Support Trans Students And Faculty

rachel-mckinnon-profileNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Rachel McKinnon is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston. Her research primarily focuses on epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and feminism and gender issues, particularly transgender issues. She has a 2015 book, The Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies, and Warrant, and is currently working on her second book, Things We Do With Assertions.

Gender Transitions in Academe, Part I

In this and future essays, I will offer advice on how faculty and staff members, departmental leaders, and senior administrators can handle the gender transition of an undergraduate or graduate student, staff member, or faculty member so that it can be as smooth as possible for everyone involved.

You may have noticed that trans* issues are becoming increasingly common in the media. (As is largely common convention, I use the asterisk to indicate broad inclusion in whom we describe under the trans* umbrella.) In fact, it’s at a point where it’s hard to miss. This increased visibility is good news, on the whole, as it’s leading to an increased understanding of the difficulties of trans* persons, and to an increased awareness of the presence of trans* people. The fact is that we’re not that rare. One of the benefits of this visibility and understanding is that more trans* people are realizing that transitioning is more possible now than ever before. But it’s far from easy, and I will discuss some ways to continue these positive trends.

In my work, I specialize in the relationship between knowledge and what we say to one another. However, I also do a significant amount of work on gender and gender identity, focusing particularly on trans* issues. Some of that work includes posts such as this where I write about trans* lives in academia. Being a trans* person in higher education, who works on trans* issues, gives me a good perspective from which to offer advice. For example, I have written about what it’s like to transition while teaching and my decision to come out to my classes, and about some special problems that trans* people face on the academic job market.

I am a lesbian trans woman, and I transitioned right at the end of my Ph.D. training. Some people in my department knew before my dissertation defense, but I chose to come out to everyone a few days after my defense. Looking back, it’s a little humorous that I sent out one of the batch emails (with an attached letter explaining my transition plans) on April 1: a few people wondered whether it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. My transition was mostly, though certainly not entirely, smooth. I happily received a tenure-track job offer and a prestigious postdoc shortly thereafter. I decided to take a postdoc year partly for some transition-related issues, such as finalizing documents with the correct sex/gender information, which I will discuss in a future essay.

In this piece, I want to address what college administrators in particular can do to help students and faculty navigate their gender transition. Administration-level changes are especially important. They set the tone for students and employees. They also carry a lot of force, impacting the whole institution rather than just a department.

First and foremost, it is paramount that university administrators put into place robust institutional human-rights policies that explicitly protect people from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and gender expression. The latter protects more than just transgender persons.

Gender identity refers to the gender that a person is, regardless of what they were assigned at birth. (I am increasingly moving away from “identifies as” language. Trans women are women — they do not merely “identify as” women.) Gender expression refers to the various ways that we show or signal our gender to others: our clothes, mannerisms, makeup, hair and so on. While a butch dyke woman’s gender identity may be that of a woman, she may express her gender in nonheteronormative ways such as wearing a button-down shirt and tie.

Thus, we want robust policy protections so that she can do this while free from harassment or discrimination. That the College of Charleston has explicit antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies including gender identity and expression was a significant part of my accepting the position. So I especially applaud them on this, and I recommend their policy as one to emulate. This is particularly important in cities, states and a country without robust antidiscrimination policies for trans* persons. Remember, in most jurisdictions in the America, it’s entirely legal to fire a trans* person for being trans*.

Second, administrations need to have a posted policy on gender identity and expression and bathroom use. In many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, people are legally — and certainly morally — permitted to use whatever bathroom best matches their gender identity. This choice is up to the people themselves, and no individual or organization should police gender. Trans* people are best situated to determine which bathroom they feel safest using and that is most appropriate for their identity and personal needs. And this decision may change over time during their transition: early on, they may not feel comfortable changing the bathrooms they use, but later on, they might. Increasingly in the United States, the departments of Justice, Education and Labor (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have all adopted trans-inclusive policies and directives.

Perhaps the common reason cited to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom policies is that this will give license to (cisgender) men to start entering women’s bathroom spaces for purposes other than using the bathroom for its intended purposes. Let me say that this fear is unfounded and deeply stigmatizing. We refer to this as the “predator myth.” An alternate policy is to begin designating gender-neutral bathrooms that anyone can use. However, creating a single (or a small number) of such bathrooms and then requiring trans* people to use them (and not to use gender-restricted multistall bathrooms) isn’t acceptable, since that is instating a “separate but equal” policy, which is both unethical and illegal.

Third, colleges and universities should, as much as legally possible, make it easy for students or employees to change their official name. Sometimes we refer to this as someone’s “preferred” name. Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, an official, legal name change can be prohibitively expensive, burdensome or simply impossible. Many times, it depends on the goodwill of a local judge, who may not be trans* friendly in their decisions to grant name changes. In such a case, people often require legal representation, which isn’t cheap.

So, one way around this is for a college to have a relatively easy name-change policy that doesn’t require official documentation such as a court order or legal name change. For example, at the institution where I received my Ph.D., the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, one need only fill out a form and have it signed by a commissioner of oaths (like a notary public), who is available to students and employees on campus for free. Colleges and universities can retain the student/employee’s “legal” name on record but use their preferred name for all communications and documents, such as degrees.

In my next essay, I will offer advice for improving department-level policies to best support transgender colleagues, particularly those who decide to transition.

Microaggression Of The Week: Heterosexism FTW

“Did you want [life insurance] for your wife?”

That comes from my HR office… in an email response to a form I filled out to apply for life insurance on behalf of my partner and myself.  So, you know, his traditionally-masculine name (Eric… yes, we have the same first name), and checking ‘M’ for his sex, and checking “I currently have an eligible Domestic Partner” rather than providing the date of our (heterosexual) marriage — all of that failed to correct the automatic assumption that I, as a man, am 1) married 2) to a woman.

I fumed for a bit, and then responded politely to correct the heterosexist assumption.  When I received a call instead of an email reply, “partner” was used, but no apology was given for the mistake.  Insult, meet injury.

From there, I had to compartmentalize my hurt long enough to meet with a student who dropped by unannounced, and then teach my gender and sexuality course.  It is no wonder that I left campus that night exhausted, grouchy, and a little queasy.  Sadly, that is only one of many days that have either been completely derailed by a microaggression, or that I have had to conjure great emotional strength to box it up until I get home.

Yeah, so being a marginalized faculty member is probably a health hazard.  No, really.

(Trying To) Start Off Right… And Real

In a post I wrote for Conditionally Accepted, I reflected on my struggle to be successful in academia (i.e., play it “safe”) while being authentic, fulfilled, and happy.  There just seems to be an imperfect balance between success and ______ (fill in the blank: authenticity, happiness, well-being, having a life).  The better I get at being an academic by traditional, normative, safe standards, the more inauthentic, underwhelmed, and unhappy I feel.  But, doing the things that are true to my passions and that make me happy take away time from those activities that will grant me tenure.

There is no known script for academics like me.  And, the threshold of being just happy and authentic enough without risking one’s job, credibility, or status is never clear, nor is it universal.  So, I stand at the start line of a lifetime of experimenting.  Today’s example:

UR LGBTQ Campus Life Newsletter, October 2013

UR LGBTQ Campus Life Newsletter, October 2013

Ah, yes, a public, campus-wide announcement (at least to the LGBTQ newsletter subscribers) that I am queer and proud.  Helllooooo Richmond!