Advice On Addressing Bias In Students’ Course Evaluations

joey-spragueNote: this blog post was originally published on our column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Joey Sprague is a sociology professor at the University of Kansas and the author of Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). She grew up in Milwaukee’s white working-class and is the first in her extended family to earn a Ph.D.

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Once again, as the school year was coming to a close, discussions about student evaluations and their inadequacy were frequent on social media. By now, many of us know about the research that shows that college students’ ratings of their professors are influenced by expectations associated with professors’ gender, class, race and age. Because these ratings influence hiring, promotions, raises and opportunities for awards, we cannot simply dismiss them; instead, we must deal with them head-on.

There are better approaches to assess teaching effectiveness than the typical student ratings, but that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, I want to address how marginalized faculty members — especially people of color and women — can mitigate the damage to their ability to be effective until we achieve a better system. Short answer: let’s show our colleagues how to approach this like good social-science methodologists. We should:

Focus on the measures that have higher levels of reliability. A student rating instrument is a survey. A basic rule for constructing questions for a survey is to minimize the errors that we make in collecting the data. An important strategy for doing that is to ask people only those questions that they can answer. Most respondents will try to provide an answer even when they lack adequate information, and there is no way to tell what criteria they are using when they do.

For example, undergraduate students consistently give me high ratings when asked to assess my knowledge of the field. Great, but given that they do not have a clue, what can they be thinking of? Another question many student evaluation surveys include is one that asks students how much they have learned. Yet research shows that students are not good at assessing their own learning, at least in the short term.

Administrators tend to like the items that ask for a global assessment — for example, “over all, this person is an effective teacher.” But these are the most likely to activate bias, because they leave it to the student to decide which of the many components of teaching, and teachers, are the most important to them. For example, research I conducted with Kelley Massoni shows that students value women who are more nurturing and men who are more amusing. Are these gendered expectations their fallback standards when called on to respond to such a global question? (Probably.)

Similarly, questions that ask students to indicate qualities such how “available” or “responsive” professors are do not allow us to know what standard they are using for comparison. Research on perception shows that the standards that people apply shift depending on the target’s gender and race. For example, one study found that students in an online class rated the instructor’s promptness in returning assignments lower when they thought their instructor was a woman (3.6 out of five) than when they thought that instructor was a man (4.4 out of five).

In general, the most reliable measures will focus on concrete behaviors and practices about which students have direct knowledge and provide guidance about a reasonable standard. For example, “The instructor return graded assignments within two weeks of when you handed them in.”

Given such common problems with course evaluations, I recommend that instructors (to the extent that they can) only use items on these evaluations that students can accurately answer. Look at each question that your institution’s rating instrument raises with a critical eye and ask yourself whether students have the information to provide an accurate response. Which of the items offer a concrete behavior and time frame?

Chances are that you are going to be asked to report scores on global items. When you do so, you should also report more specific ratings. If you are getting less favorable ratings on items that are linked to cultural expectations for gender and race, call your colleagues’ attention to how students’ expectations vary with these categories. Address your colleagues as scholars who respect careful interpretations of the data, which should make them open to a shared analysis. “Notice how students rate me lower on how flexible I am than they do on how clear the expectations were. Could this be another demonstration of the findings that students resent women’s exercise of authority more than men’s?”

Apply sound statistical analysis. People who have taken a basic course in statistics have probably learned that if a distribution of scores includes a few extreme scores, the median (the middle value) will be a much more accurate indicator of the central tendency than the mean (the average of all of the scores). Extreme scores in student ratings can be the output of racism, sexism, homophobia and other social biases. Even if your institution only provides the means on items, you can usually come up with a decent estimate of the median of the distribution if you can see the frequencies. If you are asked to report the mean scores, report the median ones alongside them, pointing out any inconsistencies and noting how the vast majority of students agree on the more favorable score.

When institutions focus on central tendencies, they are missing important information about the distribution of student ratings: the degree and pattern of variation among students’ ratings of an instructor. That data can help establish that bias is at work.

Look at the distribution on each item. Is it bimodal — that is, are there two modes (i.e., the most frequently occurring value[s])? If so, other factors may be in play, such as different likelihoods of applying race or gender expectations, depending on whether students match the instructor demographically or not.

Look for patterns across different items in the same course. Do you see any variation? If students are responding to the specific content of varying items, it seems reasonable that there will be some variation in their answers across items. Few of us do everything equally well in the classroom. Ratings of all fives or all threes (out of five) are the outcome of some other factor dominating the ratings. Racism, sexism, homophobia and/or ageism could be creating uniformity in the students’ judgments across items.

Compare ratings on the same item across your classes. Things like an instructor’s clarity, openness to questions and availability outside of class are likely to be consistent across every class that the person is teaching. If students’ ratings vary significantly on the same item from one class to another, one culprit could be the match between the content of the class and the social characteristics of the instructor. Do students rate professors of color as less fair when they teach about racial inequality compared to courses they teach in other areas? Do men get higher ratings for being effective in classes on gender than they do in their other classes? (Probably.)

Researchers have found two other circumstances can influence ratings: whether the class is required and the grade that students expect to receive. Students are likely to punish women instructors even more when they are unhappy about required classes or disappointed with the grades they have received. Given findings in other areas of social-science research, it is a reasonable to expect that a faculty member’s gender is interacting with other markers of marginalization in influencing the degree of student retribution.

Controlling for such variables (that is, statistically accounting for their effects) would require access to the raw data, but few of us will be in that position. At the very least, in examining the data we do get, we should take into account whether the class is required.

We have been trained to be good researchers, and we often teach students how to do research well. It’s time to teach our colleagues. This is a matter of equity in higher education.

Bias And The Application Process

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Jeffrey W. Lockhart is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He tweets irregularly at @jw_lockhart.

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jeff-lockhartThe academy, particularly in its upper echelons, is severely lacking on the diversity front. At many levels, including admissions, funding and even hiring, one of the major gateways to advancement is the application process. When I agreed to serve as an application reviewer for a fellowship for the first time this year, other than the usual tinge of impostor syndrome, I felt confident that I knew what I was in for. After all, I had read about the applications process, and I have been coached on my own applications, several of which were successful.

Still, I was not prepared for what it was actually like to be on a team that reviewed hundreds of applications. At every turn, I could see how the application review process disadvantages applicants from underrepresented groups. As a social-justice-minded queer academic, I feel compelled to share a list of my observations and some thoughts on how those of us reviewing applications and those of us applying can push back against these systemic inequalities in the application process.

How Reviewing Happens

Wow, do reviewers skim! For round one, we were told to spend between one and five minutes reviewing each 30-page application. That’s 10 seconds or fewer per page of short essays, check boxes, recommendation letters, CVs, etc. Your favorite sentence? That subtle wording? I probably did not see them as I scrolled by, and I took about 15 minutes total per application. If the one sentence that I happened to read in that paragraph was self-doubting, or if I was unsure how it answers the question, “Why should I invite you to interview?” then it was hard to give the application a positive review.

Applicants, the reasons you are great — and, yes, there are reasons you are great — have to be so simple and obvious that reviewers pick up on them in a matter of seconds. Reviewers, one of the things that I loved about this particular process is that it forced me to find and write down at least one exceptionally good thing from every application. That really pushed against the perils of skimming, as well as my implicit biases, at the same time. If you are designing a review process, this is a small but important structural addition you can make. If you are reviewing, you can make doing this a personal requirement even if it is not formally required.

Reviewers seek out reasons to quickly reject. We have a huge stack of applications to review, and we can only interview a tiny fraction of people, often less than 10 percent of all applicants. Once we spot a flaw in the application, it can easily feel as though we have done our job and narrowed down the pool of applicants. It is extremely tempting to quickly give a low rating and move on to the next application after finding a weakness. That has deleterious effects on minority and women applicants, who are often socialized to hedge expressions of their strengths by pointing out their own weaknesses.

As applicants, it can help to know that reviewers are already looking for flaws in order to use them against us. As reviewers, we can help by sticking to predetermined evaluation criteria instead of leveraging the feelings of inadequacy underrepresented applicants are socialized to express against them.

One bad review dooms an application. Three reviewers skimmed each application, and their average ratings determined who never got a closer look. It is a safe bet that at least 10 percent of applications will get positive reviews from all three reviewers. Thus, one bad review is often enough to reject an application without an interview.

As applicants, we should not only write an application that most reviewers will like. We also need to write an application that none of the reviewers will dislike. Personally, I find it helpful (although painful) to read through my writing sentence by sentence and, for each one, ask myself, “What is the worst way this could be interpreted?” and, “Could this sentence give readers a reason to reject me or my argument?” As reviewers, before we give a low rating in one or more areas, it is worth asking if those areas are really bad enough to dismiss the applicant outright, because that is often the effect we have. Meanwhile, more privileged applicants often seem to have no particular weaknesses and glide through to the next phase, despite sometimes being less desirable candidates overall.

Inside the Applications

Male applicants tend to oversell ourselves. Those from high-status universities particularly do that, while female applicants tend to undersell themselves. There are social reasons behind this — real pressures not to “lean in.” Application reviews, however, favor privileged rhetoric that boldly states the applicant’s strengths and omits negative self-evaluations. The survival strategies underrepresented applicants have learned in other spaces may work against them here. For instance, minority applicants with ample experience in an area often described it as “limited” or something that they “need to improve.”

Reviewers and applicants both should avoid applicants’ own feelings about their qualifications. Applicants just do not have enough information to accurately judge their own relative strengths, because they cannot see the other applications or reviewer criteria. On top of this, socialization means self-evaluations will be biased in favor of privileged applicants. When writing and reviewing applications, we can reduce the effect of this confidence gap (read: structural inequality) by sticking to other measures. For example, how long have they worked with a method? How good is their understanding of a problem?

Give friendly reviewers something to work with. This can be tricky. Moreover, coming out about our identities and struggles in an application (where sometimes even race, ethnicity and gender may not be obvious to reviewers) risks discrimination. Still, a reviewer who wants to offset the challenges to underrepresented groups in STEM fields cannot do that unless they know about the identities their applicants have. Similarly, many of us have held nonacademic jobs to make ends meet. Often that means we have less time for building our CVs than applicants with more academic or personal funding. Mentioning this lets a friendly reviewer emphasize the quality of research experience over the quantity.

Honest recommendations doom applications. Almost every letter says the applicant is perfect, or maybe that they are just near perfect in one area but perfect everywhere else. Most letter writers know this. Unlike grade inflation, it is not even debated. Because any honest review admits a candidate is not perfect, an honest review puts a candidate at the bottom of a thick pile of “perfect” applications. Structurally, the letter writers least likely to know and follow this custom are those on the periphery of academe.

Consequently, applicants at the margins are disproportionately likely to receive these letters. Reviewers can be conscious of this when comparing typical reviews to more honest ones.

Bonus: How Reviewers Can Spot Privileged Applicants

Often, applicants specify a problem they would like to work on — usually one that others have been working on for years. When the applicant describes such a problem as trivial, it is a sure sign of an applicant with some problematic privilege. Minority applicants usually get points because they respect other people’s work and the challenges they face.

For applications with a social justice component, “I volunteered at a soup kitchen once and I liked the feeling when the patrons smiled at me” is a sure sign that an applicant does not get it. Not everyone has the opportunity to be involved in long-term work for systemic change, but I am skeptical of any applicant who talks about social justice and does not display understanding of the nature of the struggle.

People have proposed numerous structural ways to address inequality in higher education. Applications and reviews are not a complete solution, but they can be important sites of change. Have you experienced other ways applications processes can re-entrench bias? Do you have other tips on pushing back? Share them in the comments!

Dear Department, I Quit.

The following post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who writes about her growing frustration with her colleagues and the culture of her department.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (http://bit.ly/1voIkjv)

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Dear Department, I Quit.

Dear Department,

I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t literally quit. You pay me a pretty decent salary. I’m not really trained to work in the real world. And for the first time in my life, I have dental benefits.

Don’t think that means, however, that I haven’t spent the majority of the past two years thinking about quitting. The fact that I don’t love my job – or even like it most days – as a professor has been one of the biggest shocks of my professional life.

In retrospect, the revolving door of junior professors who filled my position then abruptly left for the 3-4 years before I accepted it should have been a warning sign. As should have been the sheer number of new colleagues who stopped by my office in the first three months of my job to reassure me that we weren’t that dysfunctional – we were just experiencing some challenges.

I can’t actually quit. But here is my notice that I figuratively quit. I will give you the work that is required of me – the courses you assign me to teach, and the one committee on which I am required to serve – but that’s it. No more volunteering for extra committees. No more organizing events. No extra assistance for the graduate students you send my way for just a bit of extra help. No more consoling the ones who feel abused. No more listening to gossip in my office, helping to smooth hurt feelings, or nudging department politics.

Instead, you get the bare minimum. Like so many of my senior professor colleagues before me, I have decided to make my career all about me.

I quit because the burden of teaching necessary to effectively run our program falls on me and my other junior colleagues. I am sick of being part of a college where teaching is valued only as lip service, one where the reality is that everyone seems to expend more effort trying to figure out how to get out of teaching than that actually exerted in the classroom. I used to love teaching, but your hatred of it is bringing me down. It is spilling into my experience and ruining one of my favorite things. I refuse to let this happen anymore.

I quit because of the burden of service and administration that has been place on me. Or rather, I quit because of your lack of gratitude for the service that I provide when ostensibly I am protected from such service until tenure. A simple “thank you” or “good job” would go a long way, probably with colleagues of all ranks. I am sick of receiving no mentorship in how to perform these tasks, but then being criticized for doing them “incorrectly.” Last, I am sick of being told that I have no idea how good I have it as an assistant professor, and how this is the best phase of my career.

I quit because of the condescension I receive toward my rank from those above me. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it is like to be a senior professor. I would appreciate it if my senior colleagues would acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to be a junior professor in 2015. Tenure is no longer guaranteed. Grant success rates for my field are at an all time low. My interdisciplinary research (allegedly all the rage right now) is difficult to publish, but my tenure expectations are the same as my colleagues with more traditional research programs. The administrative burden for professors is higher and higher as work gets delegated to us from above (but the administration bloats at the same time). My tenure standards don’t take this into account either. I will spend one-third of my career paying off the student loan and credit card debt I incurred in graduate school. My stress over this environment is dismissed as me being silly.

I come from a generation that increasingly values a life beyond my career. This does not mean that I am less dedicated than the (mostly white men) colleagues who have historically walked these halls before me. Academia as a profession, like many others, is suffering from an epidemic of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Being shamed for looking after myself is not only inappropriate, but also disgusting.

I quit because of the everyday sexism I have to experience. Including that from senior female colleagues. I am so fatigued by this that I don’t even have the emotional or mental energy to say more.

Last, I quit because I am sick of the politics. I knew that academia was cut-throat business. I knew it valued the individual over the team. What I didn’t know is that I would be surrounded by coworkers who seem to spend a substantial proportion of their time endeavoring to screw each other over. Who create back-room deals that serve to exacerbate the gross inequities of academia. Who, then, act as though my junior colleagues and I are naïve when such deals (which usually only benefit senior colleagues) upset us.

I quit. I am tired of forcing myself to engage in a system where the only path to personal happiness and health seems to be to disengage. So I give in. I disengage. From now on, you only get the most basic things I have to give, and nothing more.

I don’t know what my long-term future entails for my career. Maybe it is time to start looking for a new job. I see so many academic blogs and Twitter accounts describing how terrible academia is…. It is nearly impossible to believe my situation could be any better somewhere else. Perhaps the one advantage to this experience is that it leads me to consider new career opportunities post-tenure. For now I’m going to focus on my own little world, and making it as positive as I can. What do I want my research to look like? What kind of instructor do I want to be? Who do I want to be, beyond a professor? Now that I’m (figuratively) quitting, I should at least have a lot more time on my hands to figure this out.

Jackson Wright Shultz Reflects On Conditional Gender Privilege

shultzJackson Wright Shultz (@WriteRadically) is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jackson reflects on his “conditional” male and cisgender privileges — contingent on others’ assumptions about his sex and gender identity — and how they benefit him in the classroom. 

Be sure to check out Jackson’s first guest post, too!

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On Conditional Gender Privilege

At the end of my first term as an adjunct, I nervously awaited the receipt of my student evaluations. From the moment that I submitted the final grades for my classes, I lived in a state of anxiety. I kept replaying the events of the semester over and over in my mind. Did I explain the course expectations thoroughly? Did I make myself available to students often enough? Was I approachable? Did my students actually learn anything? Perhaps my anxiety stemmed from being new to teaching, or perhaps it was rooted in the knowledge that as an adjunct my future employment depends in no small part on the evaluations my students give me, Several weeks after the term ended, my evaluations finally arrived. My hand over my eyes, I peered apprehensively through my fingers, reading each student comment with a combination of dread and excitement. The first evaluation was positive. As was the second. And the third! I continued reading with growing enthusiasm and relief. All of my students provided glowing reviews of my teaching.

For a full two minutes I was elated. My world was an idyllic sphere of thoughtful students who cared deeply about learning and who respected my pedagogical methods. Yet, as I re-read the evaluations, my blissful smile slowly sank into a frown. The words that had comforted me moments ago were suddenly glaring red flags: confident, awesome, interesting, organized, and even one gnarly. I knew that there was little hope, but I still desperately wanted to believe that these were objective, unbiased reviews. So, I called a colleague to ask how she fared in her evaluations.

“Don’t even ask,” she sighed, “One student wrote, ‘I’m not sure what was going on with her hair, but it was very distracting.’ It only goes downhill from there.”

I hung up, disheartened. I had wanted to believe that my teaching was as outstanding and gnarly as my students suggested, but as many women in academia have noted and countless studies prove, student evaluations are all too often biased along gender lines. I didn’t work harder than any of the other adjuncts in my department, and I had significantly less teaching experience than the majority of women with whom I worked. My excellent evaluations were the product of male privilege, and nothing more.

Recognizing And Using My Privilege

As a transmasculine individual and a feminist, it is critical that I recognize and push back on my gender privilege. My students see me as a white, able-bodied man and evaluate me as such. Not only is my male privilege abundantly clear in my evaluations from, and interactions with, students, other faculty, and administrators, my cisgender privilege is, as well. In my case, having cisgender privilege, sometimes heinously referred to as “passing” privilege, means that I am consistently perceived as a man and assumed to be male. It doesn’t matter that I am not cisgender: I still benefit from cisgender privilege. In part, this means that I have the option of whether or not I disclose to others that I am transgender – a luxury and a safety that many trans people can only fathom.

Yet both my male and cisgender privileges are entirely conditional. They are predicated on other people remaining ignorant of the fact that I am trans. They are privileges that can be revoked by coworkers “outing” me to my supervisors or students, by glancing at the extensive list of transgender-related publications on my CV, or by merely Googling my name. In some ways, these gender-based privileges are single use: once my status as a trans person is discovered, the scene roughly equates to the villagers descending upon Frankenstein’s monster with torches and pitchforks. Minimally, once my trans status is “discovered,” my cisgender privilege vanishes, my male privilege dissipates, and my acceptance as an instructor and scholar is retracted. In practical terms, being “outed” could easily result in me receiving negative student evaluations, experiencing harassment in the workplace, or even being fired.

Thus far, I have been extremely fortunate in my academic career to have an open-minded supervisor who hired me in spite of my lavender vita, as well as coworkers whom I can trust. I’m not naïve enough to believe that I’ll continue for much longer in my career without others in my department or on campus realizing that I’m trans. Alas, the internet exists. While many trans individuals in generations past transitioned and disappeared into the woodwork, the anonymity that they were able to achieve is difficult, if not impossible, for a generation raised on the Internet. My online presence is hardly stealth, and comes with calculated risks. By blogging and publishing without the use of a pseudonym, I hazard that my coworkers, supervisors, or students may soon put two and two together, and the consequences for me could be dire if they do–particularly as an adjunct (a topic for future discussion).

For the time being, however, my open presence online allows me to frame the conversation about myself as a trans scholar. Likewise, in the office, my cisgender and male privileges, though conditional, afford me the agency to advocate for transgender colleagues and students who are not in safe positions to self-advocate, as well as to call out sexism and misogyny in the workplace without risking the scorn, scrutiny, and career-hampering that women often face for the same actions. I am fully cognizant that I was once in their positions and could be again, and I act with an awareness that dismantling the institutions that uphold and enforce sexism benefits everyone. My hope is that if and when my conditional privileges are stripped away and I am no longer in a position to self-advocate or frame the conversation about myself, maybe I will have affected enough micro-level changes that my students and colleagues will be able to engage in constructive dialogues around gender and leave the pitchforks at home.

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Biography

Jackson Wright Shultz is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College. He obtained his MALS degree from Dartmouth College (2014), and will begin his Doctorate of Education in the fall. He recently gave a TEDx Talk on transgender liberation and gender equity. His personal research interests include technology law, social media studies, women and gender studies, critical race studies, queer theory, composition pedagogy, higher education administration, and oral history. His first book, Trans/Portraits, will be released in October 2015 from the University Press of New England.

Sex Work+Academia=Whorephobia

Juniper Fitzgerald (@juniperfitz) is a graduate student and sex worker, as well as a writer.  In this guest post, Juniper reflects on the presumed contradiction between academia and sex work, detailing some of the challenges and bias she has faced in the academy because she is a sex worker.

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Sex Work + Academia = Whorephobia

juniperAlthough surprisingly adult-like for someone who believed in Santa Clause until the ripe old age of thirteen, I nonetheless remain embodied in my nerdy, greasy-haired self of girlhood. A painfully awkward child, that space of insecurity was further squared off by a single-parent, barely middle-class household in the heart of the Bible Belt. Unattractive, unshaven, and terrified of Homo sapiens – if ever there were an unlikely candidate for sex work, I surely fit the bill. But even the trope of the “unlikely [insert any of the numerously broad, oversexed caricatures of women in our culture]” is uncomfortable at best. Indeed, it necessitates a “likely [insert any of the numerously broad, oversexed caricatures of women in our culture].” Who, exactly, is the likely stripper? The unsurprising porn star? The totally foreseeable whore? In the decade I spent peddling eroticism and intimacy, I never once had the pleasure of meeting such a predictable person.

And yet, discourses surrounding so-called sexual deviants have vested interests in these kinds of distinctions. While exploited sex workers and victims of trafficking necessarily have our cultural empathy, those for whom “victim” is not a salient identity garner less warmth. As someone whose choice to enter the sex industry was only modestly constrained by poverty, I exist in the ambiguity of agential sex work – ambiguous insofar as agency is tricky under a capitalistic, white supremacist patriarchy. Now that I am in academia, that ambiguity is difficult for colleagues, namely because the conversation surrounding sex work has, historically, been one of exploitation. There is a distinct lack of language through which to express my experiences.

And I am not alone. As the bloated face of capitalism pokes its stars and stripes into all that is holy and sacred, as the authentic pursuit of knowledge becomes privatized and as graduate assistantships and adjunct labor become little more than indentured servitudes, more and more people supplement their university pay checks with sex work. And it is certainly a tricky balance. Not only do sex workers navigate two extreme identities, we must also work harder at convincing academic colleagues of our intellectual rigor and of the seriousness of our research (especially if we happen to also focus our research on gender and sexuality). Our struggles are not unlike those of mid-late century feminists and queers. In fact, of her struggle as a feminist in the academia, Caroline Ramazanoglu (1987) wrote:

It is my contention that I am not a crank. I am not a freak. I am not unprofessional. I am not a totalitarian fascist determined to impose my will on others. I am not sexually deprived, I do not seek revenge on men, but I am labeled as these (and worse) to my face and behind my back, because of my lack of deference and my persistent failure to accept my “proper place” as a subordinate female in a patriarchal, competitive, and hierarchical system (69).

Our experiences are similar, though I might replace “I do not seek revenge on men” with “I do not indiscriminately seduce men.” It was almost a decade ago that I was wittingly “outed” by local media—an unexpectedly titillating account of my life of vice. Subsequently, colleagues, professors, and students started propositioning me behind closed doors, a testament to my perceived hypersexuality. As a graduate student, I dull out infinite justification for my research; I wade through tomes of student reviews claiming my “seriousness” is at odds with my research interests, which happen to be gender and sexuality as they relate to the sex industry. Colleagues claim that I am “fringe” and unscrupulously mock my work. I am perceived to be biased or, on rare but notable occasions, suffering from false consciousness. In one particularly haunting example, a national research project was stalled because of my participation in it while working as a sex worker. I am often accused of “inappropriateness” – my dress or my demeanor or my interactions with male colleagues are perceived to be laden with sexual overtures. A battlefield of eggshells, I am constantly tip-toeing over the sensibilities of my peers. My nerdy and bookish sense of self is continuously competing with cohorts’ insistence that I exist only as a perfidious harlot. It is, of course, a form of whorephobia.

Whorephobia in academia speaks to larger issues of sexism and classism in universities. Because of that nagging belief in the “likely sex worker,” academics box their sex-working colleagues into unforgiving stereotypes: vindictive, untrustworthy, unstable and, of course, unworthy, just to name a few. And it is important to recognize that said stereotypes are engendered from a fundamental distrust of women and the systemic denial of bodily agency, particularly as it plays out for poor and blue-collar women.

Supporting sex workers, whether they be colleagues or otherwise, is indeed a progressive position. Acknowledging sex workers’ complicated and infinitely unfolding humanity is one way we, as academics, may begin to close the gap between the ivory tower’s insiders and outsiders.

References

Ramazanoglu, Caroline. (1987). “Sex and Academic Life, or You Can Keep a Good Woman Down.” Pp. 61-74. In Women, Violence and Social Control, eds. Jalna Hanmer and Mary Maynard. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Dr. Wendy Christensen Reflects On Year 2 Of The Tenure-Track

Wendy ChristensenDr. Wendy M. Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her research focuses on how inequality shapes political participation.  In her free time she loves reading feminist theory and mysteries (and feminist mysteries!), running, and drinking beer.  You can learn more about Dr. Christensen on her website and on Twitter at @wendyphd

Below, Dr. Christensen reflects on her second year on the tenure-track — teaching, research, and service — specifically highlighting what worked and what did not.

Reflections Of My Second Year: Teaching, Research, and Service

It is the end of my second year in my tenure track position.  I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I have developed some strategies for surviving (and even thriving!).

Below, I describe some of what has worked and what hasn’t for me this past year.

Teaching

What Worked?

  • Less is more. I plan less for class and allow for organic discussion. I assign less reading, making sure the important readings are done thoroughly instead of assigning lots of readings that just aren’t going to be read.
  • When it comes to documentaries, more is more! There are tons of great sociology documentaries in the areas I teach in (Social Movements, Social Stratification, Intro, Methods) so I decided to splurge and show a full-length documentary (one that takes up a whole class period) every 2-3 weeks. At first I felt guilty. Am I’m slacking off? Then, a colleague pointed out that I’m letting people speak about their own experiences. As a feminist teacher, that is something I strive for. The films I’ve shown have been touchstones for students throughout the semester. In fact, during the last week of my Social Movements class they were still talking about the film I showed the first week — The Life and Times of Harvey Milk! The True Meaning of Pictures sparked one of the best student-driven class discussions I’ve ever had on objectification and authenticity in research!
  • Short, regular low-stakes reading reactions are a win-win. They keep students doing the reading, thinking about them and writing regularly. And they are super easy and fast for me to grade on a simple 4-point scale.
  • Google Drive has been fantastic this semester for students in my Methods courses. They use Google Drive to share assignments (interview questions, survey results etc.) with me. I can comment, and they are able to peer review each other’s papers through real time editing. Learning to use Google Drive has helped them give up their USB drives for a real backup system.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Attendance. I’m giving up on taking attendance. I will continue to do it (using a seating chart) for the first couple weeks of classes to learn names, but after that it’s a waste of time. It’s demeaning. They are adults and can decide whether to come to class. If they miss class, they’ll miss key information, and won’t get credit for in-class assignments.
  • Google Drive. Yes, it worked, but I need to find a way to manage the email notifications that come when I get assignments. Since committees and my department also use Google Drive, my inbox was flooded with updates and comments and shares all semester. There has to be a way to manage that.
  • Assignments due at the end of the semester. Weekly reading reaction papers helped spread the grading out somewhat, but I need to move up the due dates of bigger papers (drafts, etc.) so that they aren’t all due at the end of the semester.

Research

What Worked?

  • Simply writing. When I don’t think too much about writing—when to do it, where to do it, how stressful it might be etc.—then I am more able to just sit down and write. Overthinking about writing itself is a big time waste when I really can just spend the time writing.
  • I had a big writing wake up call this semester. In February attended my usual yearly feminist retreat, the winter meeting of Sociologist for Women in Society for my booster shot of empowerment. At this meeting I learned that I was being too much of a perfectionist about my writing. My mentors wisely convinced me that I am not allowed to be the judge of my own work. On the tenure track, I just need to write, finish drafts, and just send them out—for feedback and for publication. I left the meeting with a whole new outlook on writing. As a perfectionist, I am not allowed to decide when something is “done” because then it will never be done! This quote sums up my new approach: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”– Alain de Botton.
  • Regular writing. Yes, I’ve read about this before, but over the past year I really put it into practice. Writing in little chunks as close to daily as possible (~4 days a week) makes writing much easier. If I wait too long between writing sessions, I’m more frustrated and get less done.

What Didn’t Work?

  • A set schedule of what to do every hour. I tried making a schedule and mapping out my day. It didn’t work. Meetings, weeks with lots of grading, informal conversations with colleagues etc. all got in the way of the schedule. It stressed me out. I know this works for some people, but it’s not going to work for me.
  • Perfectionism. See above. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Failure, rejection? Trying again? Those things are all better than nothing happening at all!

Service

As a second year faculty member, I am not longer excused from service.

What Worked?

  • Doing service I care about. Each committee I’m serving on means something to me. I’m on the Curriculum Committee instead of Assessment (I’m not a big test person), and the Student Retention Committee instead of the Budget Committee. I’m on the LGBTQA Advisory Board and that counts as university-level service, so I’m steering clear of the faculty Senate for now. The colleagues I work with on these committees care about the same issues I do, and that’s energizing.
  • Consistency. Every year in our department we volunteer for committees. I decided to not try anything new, so that there isn’t a big learning curve again for new committees in the fall. Everyone is happy with my current level of service, so I’m keeping it exactly where it is.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Doing too much! Yes, like many junior faculty, I am terrible at saying no. What am I supposed to do when asked to be on the Race & Gender Project Board?  Say no?  Hell no! I did say no to being the chair of that committee, though!

What has your year been like?  What has worked for you and what do you still need to work on?

Dr. Nyasha Junior Won 10 Faculty Awards (And You Can, Too!)

N JuniorDr. Nyasha Junior is a scholar/teacher whose research focuses on feminist and womanist biblical interpretation.  She is passionate about CrossFit, grits, and BBC television.  And, she writes about teaching, academia, and offers advice for students on her blog, No Extra Credit.  See more about Dr. Junior on her website, and follow her on Twitter at @NyashaJunior.

Below, Dr. Junior offers a fun way to celebrate one’s own accomplishments for the past academic year. Enjoy!

How I Won 10 Faculty Awards (And You Can Too!)

It’s that time again! At the end of each academic year, like most faculty members, I have to complete an annual faculty productivity report. In this report, I provide details regarding my productivity as defined by some ad hoc committee from the Neolithic era. I give highlights of my year in four areas: publication and research; service; teaching; and professional development activities. I repeat what I wrote in a meeting with a designated administrator, and the report becomes part of the fabled “official file.”

I am an African-American straight, cisgender woman in a tenure-track position at a divinity school. I am a biblical scholar, and my year has been productive in terms of the four productivity areas. Still, the things that I am most proud of are not reflected in the report. In academia, rewards can be few and far between, and only those things that are deemed worthy by a committee are acknowledged. But no more!

This year, I am not waiting for my accomplishments to be recognized. I will not go gentle into that good night. I refuse to allow my good work, great retorts, and fabulous outfits to go unnoticed. Therefore, I hereby nominate my bad myself for the following 10 Me, Myself, and I Faculty Awards.

10. Best post-faculty-meeting huddle convener
9. Best redirect of an incorrect answer
8. Best short, sweet, and cold-blooded email
7. Best recovery from a bad twist-out on a teaching day
6. Best show of restraint in the presence of a rookie colleague
5. Best final assignment handout and rubric designer
4. Best 5-minute face after oversleeping
3. Best No! to service “opportunity” with accompanying silent stare
2. Best cute, cold weather teaching outfit
1. Best Yoda-like office hours mentoring

And the winner is:

Me!  In every category!  Gasp!

You can do it, too! It’s not a competition. You’re the selection committee. You’re the only entrant. You’re the only winner!

Here are the rules:

  • You must nominate yourself for 10 things. One is not enough. You need to really reflect on all of the wonderful things that happened this year.
  • You must not include things that appear on your CV, annual productivity report, or on any official document. Dig deep for those things that are usually overlooked.
  • You must include only positive things that you did (or did not do). This is not a time to thank the entire cast and crew, the Academy, your stylist, etc. Just you!
  • You must not use this exercise as an opportunity for thinking about what did not go well this year. It is likely that you dwell on the negative quite enough. Keep it positive! The saints would call this a “praise report.”

In which categories would you nominate yourself for awards?

I know. I know. You wouldn’t nominate yourself. You have issues with self-promotion. But try. Be creative.

I’m going to collect my swag bag, do a few post-award interviews, and go to the after party!

Share your awards in the comments!

One Reason To Consider Saying “Yes” To Service

Image Source: HuffPo (http://huff.to/MwaapI)

There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student.  As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way.  And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia.  (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.)  I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.

But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever?  Here, I do not mean  — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews.  What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups?  Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?

Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.”   At least three reasons.  And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”

Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)

I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work.  Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV.  I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world.  But, even my weekends are spent recovering.

Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service.  I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers.  I miss talking about something other than academia.  (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.)  I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.

Scholarship In Action

Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research.  But, our students are a select (privileged) group.  And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated.  And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom.  Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful.  But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms.  Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!

Feel Appreciated And Respected

Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place.  “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me?  there must be a mistake!”

An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class.  The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia.  That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception.  Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations?  Wow!

By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations.  That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing.  Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place!  People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined).  I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute.  I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals.  At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives.  I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities.  Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist.  Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.

Conformity is overrated.  And it is bad for science and higher education.

The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia.  I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!).  And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).

Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia.  But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia.  I am referring to those who willfully do not see them.  Let me give a few examples, big and small:

  • Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around.  Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much.  Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
  • Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market.  And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations.  Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
  • Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations.  “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?”  Both times, I had to look away and count to ten.  Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
  • Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work.  In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!).  I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department.  Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
  • Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it.  What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers.  Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued.  I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline.  For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school.  Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals.  But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
  • Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation].  Want the most career options?  Select a white man as your dissertation chair.  Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia?  Hmm, that probably is not a white man.  So, what do you value more — your success or your survival?  Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee.  Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc.  But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
  • In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged.  At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia!  Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”  “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  “How could she be racist?”  Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more!  Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability!  non-generalizable!  selection effect!  At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?

Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse.  We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces.  And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged.  Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.

This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer”  Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it.  At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness.  In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement.  We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.

I Souled Out

Around this time last year, a few friends and colleagues — those with whom I was not as close — continued to ask about the outcome of my academic job search.  “Oh, how nice!”  “Where’s that?”  “Are you excited to go there?”  To put it politely, my decision to take a job at a liberal arts university was not without push-back from my department.  Though I stood firm in my decision to accept a job at a department and university I liked, that is close to my family, and that presented the closest thing to “balance.”  But, I could not help but feel a bit defensive against any sort of question regarding my decision.  Even to a simple, polite, “oh, I haven’t heard of University of Richmond before,” I automatically explained my reasons for choosing it.  It was as though I felt I needed to justify myself, to convince others that I was not a failure for not taking a job at a Research 1 university.

The notion that “it’s your life!”, even articulated begrudgingly by those who pushed hard for me to “go R1,” has — so far — proven true.  Life goes on.  Fortunately, it is going on with me in a place where I feel content.  The funny thing is fighting to make a career decision that best suited my needs (professionally, health and well-being, politically, family) has shifted to being told that I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a job (period). I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job.  I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job after one year on the academic job market.  I am lucky to be a professor now at 28, having gone straight through high school, college, and graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Lucky?

I have already heard the line that 80% of what occurs on the job market is beyond one’s own control.  Who knows what search committees want, what departments need, what Deans tell them they want, and how universities operate in terms of hiring?  I definitely buy that.  But, considering the prevalence of discrimination in the US including academia, I resent the assertion of luck in my success.  Yes, let me rattle off my oppressed identities once again.  I am a fat Black queer scholar who studies sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, and discrimination.  No matter my efforts to “soften” my public image by deleting blog posts that might be too radical or militant, much of it was still out there and easy to find.  Search committees were not beating down my door to offer me a job.  And, those interviews and job offers that I received were a reflection of 80% that is beyond my control, 20% my publications, teaching experience, and committee’s letters — and 15% selling out throughout my graduate training.  Telling me I am “lucky” is both insulting and a perverse view of how hiring decisions are made in academia.

I Souled Out

Let me think for a moment to see if I can pinpoint where it began.  Like many kids with aspirations for college, and college students with aspirations for graduate school, I was involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and aimed for high grades.  But, all of that felt like the hard work and sacrifice that was necessary for anyone.  It was at the start of my graduate training when I realized I needed to start sacrificing who I was as a person in order to be successful.

I suppose the need to trade off bits of my soul in exchange for professional success first crystallized in my second semester.  I attended a talk in my department on public sociology, and was disappointed by the speaker’s approach to make sociology publicly relevant and accessible.  I came filled with rage, hating graduate school so much those days because racism had reared its ugly head right within one of my classes — on the first day, nonetheless.  I wore a gawdy, baggy hoodie to signify “don’t fucking talk to me.”  And, it worked.  Blackness — specifically Black rage and Black militance — stood out, and seemed to make others uncomfortable.

I went to the National Sexuality Resource Center‘s (at SFSU) summer institute on sexuality that year, and was given life that I needed so badly at that point.  I met queer people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and of different academic stripes, who shared my passion for social justice and inclusion and my critical perspective.  I cried at our award ceremony at the end of the summer institute because I did not want it to end.  In between sobs, I said that I wished my fellow institute participants were my grad school cohort.  I returned to grad school that fall ready to make it work, but on my terms.  So, I got my tongue pierced.  I noticed furrowed brows from one of my professors; I suppose saying something was out of the question, but facial expressions can say much more.  I took it out that same day.

Grad school knocked me back on my ass that second year.  I was still miserable, still debating whether to leave or transfer to another program.  That winter, I got sick while visiting a friend.  After a couple of days, feeling a bit better, I went to visit other friends.  I suppose I was not as well as I thought.  I completely missed a red light and hit a car going through the intersection.  Fortunately, there were minor bumps and bruises, though both cars were totaled.  I was staying with my parents for the holidays… and it was their car I wrecked.  My mother was not happy with me.  But, she set her anger aside because she had to care for me — I was sick once again, and now had a badly injured hand.  Feeling so helpless over those remaining days of winter break changed something in me.  I returned to my grad program knowing that it was my job to make the training work for me.  After a year and a half of misery, I decided it was either time to change the situation to stop being miserable or just leave.  Why waste any more of my life?

Making it work, at times, meant selling out.  I said goodbye to any clothes that could be read as “too Black,” “too urban,” “too thuggish,” or “too militant.”  I worked at being more patient with people who were not the most open-minded, accepting, or understanding.  I stopped resisting advice from professors, which, admittedly, at times simply meant appearing more open to their suggestions.  I slowly shifted into what I saw as the “good little graduate student.” And, it paid off.

  • I solidified my use of quantitative methods, given its valued status in my department, and sociology in general.
  • When applying to graduate schools, I decided on sociology over gender, women, and sexuality studies programs; I figured I could get a PhD in the former and get a job in the latter, but never the other way around.  Then, I was discouraged from pursuing either the gender studies or sexuality studies graduate minors; instead, I made research methods (read: quantitative methods) my minor.  I also decided on social psychology for my qualifying exam, not gender or sexuality as I actually wanted.  So, besides a couple of courses, my graduate training is squarely in mainstream sociology.
  • I continued to move toward marketing myself as a mainstream sociologist — one who is within a major subfield but happens to study a particular population.  That is, I learned that studying LGBT people was not enough; one had to be a medical sociologist who focused on LGBT people.  That is exactly how I marketed myself when applying to jobs.
  • Socially, I pushed myself to interact more with those I saw as “making it.”  How were these people going through the same program as me but without ever feeling miserable?  Unlike the professional changes I was making, this did not last.  These people were not miserable because they were not marginalized in the same ways as me (or at all).  Unfortunately, this meant that they were unwilling to hear my complaints, or seemed to dismiss other students like me as responsible for their own misery.

Recovering My Soul

How far I had gone in selling out became apparent just in my last year of grad school.  I sat on a panel about diversity in grad school and, more specifically, the challenges that certain students faced because of their marginalized status(es).  A student in the audience, to our surprise, vented about all of the compromises they made to survive, and times they bit their tongue instead of challenging racist comments from their classmates.  Their reflection struck a chord with me.  Wow, how much of my own soul have I given up, compromised, or hidden in order to get ahead in my career?

I definitely see it today.  As I look at my CV, I see few publications on sexuality — the very thing I went to graduate school to study.  A colleague even remarked his surprise that my primary line of research is on discrimination and health; as much as I talk about sexuality, teach courses on it, and publicly write about it, he assumed sexuality is my primary area of research.  My students, too, note their surprise, seeing two shelves of books on sexuality compared to half on health and half on discrimination.  As I looked for paper awards in sociology to which I can apply, I realized I am eligible for those in health and none on sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body.  Some days, I do not even know who I have become professionally and intellectually.

I am still carrying on with suits and ties in an effort to “blend in.”  This semester, a few former students noted that they sense I have my “guard up,” that I seem nervous or uneasy at times, leaving them to wonder who I really am.  I am sure I have also made certain comments that piqued their interest in me enough to even think about these things or to notice.  But, as open as I have been about making certain decisions about how I present myself, and it seems everyone knows, the joke is on me apparently.  What good is a disguise if everyone knows it is a disguise?  For my own well-being, it seems it is time to let go of this strategy because it is not helping and actually takes a toll.  And, increasingly, I am seeing that attempting to blend in is doing a disservice for my marginalized students.  Some seem to want me just to be me so badly because there are no others who are (exactly) like me.  Why deny them that?  Oh, right — tenure.

But, to my surprise, I am finding that I have joined a place that already knew who I am (it seems silly to think you can hide who you are when you have had an online presence since the start of grad school) and likes who I am.  I was in job market-mode when i interviewed, so I was not fully conscious of the comfort I would feel politically.  But, I do believe, at a semi-conscious level, I made a note of that benefit of this job (over others).  I chose this job because I can do critical work, serve the local community, and blog (even about academia!).

Tenure

Concluding Thoughts

A part of me wonders whether I would even have this job if it were not for the ways in which I souled out.  Would I have been forced to stay in graduate school longer?  Would I have fewer publications?  Would I have been forced to teach more because I never received external funding?  Would I have stayed miserable, maybe even dropped out of graduate school all together?  Would I ever get a tenure-track job?  Pessimism here is very tempting…

It is also tempting to say that I sacrificed in such big ways, it all paid off, and I lived happily ever after.  But, I do not want to offer that as the moral of the story.  I do not want to send the message to other marginalized scholars they can be successful with just a little hard work and selling out.  If anything, I will accept that I made certain sacrifices to get ahead so that I can change that narrative.  Ah, yes, and that serves as yet another vote for being authentic and comfortable where I am now.  I see myself as no role model to my students if my success exists solely because of the ways in which I souled out.

I am not alone in making sacrifices to advance my career.  And, this happens for marginalized folks outside of academia, as well.  My point here, though, is to highlight that it does occur in academia.  The implicit message sent is that success is narrowly-defined, which usually means that marginalized folks must work at downplaying their marginalization, their Otherness, to fit in the mainstream definition of success.  Sometimes the messages are explicit, like the gender policing I have witnessed or experienced firsthand to “encourage” grad students to present themselves in masculine(-ist) ways.  At times, it seems you have to choose the (limited) ways you can embrace difference, criticism, or militance because there is a threshold that one should not exceed if you want to be accepted at all.

It is my hope that speaking publicly about this, and regularly maintaining conversations like this publicly through this and others’ blogs, will highlight what many marginalized scholars face in their training and careers.  More optimistically, I hope that these kinds of demands cease, that one’s unique social location, interests, and perspective are embraced rather than seen as inconsistent with traditional or mainstream scholarship.  Pessimistically speaking, as tenure-track jobs become scarce, and people of color and women are overrepresented in contingent positions, I fear the pressure to conform and sell out will only increase in the years to come.