An open letter to a dying department.

Hello, Department. I am ostensibly part of you, except you’d never know that unless I told you. I get it, though; we interact with one another so little to avoid conflict, that it’s no surprise that you don’t know that I or most of the 20+ first year graduate students exist. This lack of interaction-even between people who have offices on the same floor of the same building- is probably why we still haven’t convened to find a new department head, or have good strategies to help grad students who run out of outside funding. But I digress, because even though we barely acknowledge one another, we should have A Talk, Department. A heart to heart before we go back to ignoring one another, if you will–like the casual partners we are.

Department, I heard the gossip–we are getting Changed. We’re under duress, friend–we have a little over a month to come up with A Plan to either prove we should exist to the College or we will be scrambled up into a clustermug of faculty from disparate departments. I hear that some of you are saying Truly Wild things, Department. That you’ll leave your tenure package behind and jump ship if this “doesn’t go your way”. That some of your fresher faculty are even saying that it’s better not to get tenure, in case this goes sideways. The few grad students who know about this (because, you’ve kept it privy like a party secret) are terrified of this merger-or-survive, since they don’t know if they’ll have a faculty adviser come next fall or even a stipend on which to live.

Department, there are a lot of things that could go wrong, here–its true. But let’s think of all the things that could go right. Let’s shoot for the moon, even. Think about it. In its storied history, this department and indeed, our entire institution, has been the poster child for the traditional academic. We’re majority made of white male faculty, with a sprinkle of white women; in fact, we only have four tenured faculty of color in a department of 47 tenure or tenure-track professors. Our professors openly tell one another and students not to rock the boat, to stay away from science communication, and that the most important thing to do is publish. The grad student body is not much different: with the majority of students either being white students from the upper class of the South or being international pay-to-play students who largely assimilate into even the most toxic facets of academia. We’ve gone nearly 70 years with our noses to our desks, venturing out of the ivory tower only long enough to go to conferences or to make sure our study sites still do, in fact, exist. We’ve done everything right, according to our current model of academia.

Even with all this, our department has still been picked for dissolution. We have a month to compile a report which pleads our case, to justify our very existence to the school. Is this not the time for radical action, Department? Is this not the moment to look at all the data, to stare into one another’s faces instead of into our computer monitors, and swerve to avoid catastrophe by admitting we must adapt to survive?

The people on this committee that dictates how we will move forward as a Department should not be the old guard of professors. It shouldn’t even be made up of the endowed professors of the department–their positions are safe within the College even if the Department is dissolved. It should consist of mid-and early career faculty and graduate students, because we are the people who actually have to live with who the Department is going to be in the near future. There can be token full faculty–we should respect our elders–but we should’t have the entire committee be made up of their thoughts. Their recalcitrance to the changes in the academic landscape are what led to our current predicament.

We also should redirect and reimagine ourselves. Instead of staying entombed in the ivory tower, we should reward faculty and staff who reach out to the communities they work in. We should reward researchers who have real-time solutions for land managers, as well as basic researchers toiling away in labs and on grants. We can become the leading age for the coming age of academia, one that teaches grad students that we can be the total package: a good researcher, a good communicator, and a good colleague.

What I am trying to say, beloved Department, is that this is our last chance. We can either maintain the status quo, the very one which is now dangling the guillotine above our heads and scaring away the fresh perspectives of junior faculty and students; or, we can run in the opposite direction and set up the infrastructure needed to become a modern and successful place to do science.

What I am trying to say, Department, is that I want us to be together in life, and not just in the silent aftermath of our dissolution. What I am trying to say, beloved Department, is that at this point we have nothing to lose from becoming radicals. The worst thing that could happen to us, is already happening to us.

Things I’m Tired Of: An almost-year-end list

  1. People in higher education gatekeeping by deciding that certain groups aren’t “really” under-represented and/or under-privileged and then needing people to show their suffering before wanting to help them.
  2. Colleagues failing to properly support and mentor junior faculty of color. Did you think that hiring a non-white person into your department was going to mean that they were going to teach just like you but with browner skin and more ‘authenticity’?
  3. People thinking that sexism must be over because there’s X% of women in our field now. THIS ONE IS SO FUNNY.
  4. Tenured, tenure-track, or long-term-contract academics relentlessly complaining about their jobs*
  5. The fact that there are 5 projects listen up on my office white board with little check boxes next to them to keep track of their progress towards publication and I’ve added (checks board)…one check this semester. LOLSOB.*
  6. Academics complaining that it isn’t their job to go our of their way to teach ‘bad’ students, and that they will only work closely with ‘good’ students. 🤯
  7. Institutions doing nothing to properly support minoritized faculty who do the bulk of student mentoring and often end up sacrificing their own mental health in the process.
  8. The fact that NO MATTER how clearly I think I write my assignments, students always seem to find a way to mis-interpret them**
  9. The fact that #MeTooSTEM is a thing. I wish we lived in a world where it wasn’t a thing. It’s a thing. It *should* be a thing. I’m *glad* it’s a thing. I just wish…you know.
  10. My college’s faculty locker-room. Look, I know #4 but seriously y’all, it’s GROSS.

 

*Everyone has a right to complain. I do it (I’m doing it rn people). What kills me are people with REALLY CUSHY jobs winging about crap all day and night. Get over it. You NEVER have to worry about where your health insurance comes from, or for that matter, your printer paper, your free coffee, your ‘book award’. So just stop, it’s embarrassing.

** I want to make clear I am not (I hope) ‘punching down’ here re: my students but complaining about the difficulty of clearly communicating to 50 people with different brains than mine.

 

Labors in and on the academy

Happy belated Labor Day to our US readers. Hope everyone took (or takes) a minute to learn the history of Labor Day in the US.

Today, the day after, I’m specifically thinking about the labor of “diversity work.”  Who is doing it? Who ISN’T?

Why does it matter? As TSW author dualitea recently wrote, there appears to be a discrepancy in majority identities and who shows up to do the learning and labor of evidence-based inclusion.

Academia is seemingly these days always talking about diversity. But is it working? Who is doing the working? The work that institutions are doing so far may not be working. A new NBER working paper  indicates that hiring ‘chief diversity officers’ is not significantly correlated with increased hiring of non-white faculty across 462 universities.

So I’d like to suggest some homework for scholars in our reader community who, like me, identify as white – go read On Being Included: On Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) by Dr. Sara Ahmed.

As she herself says of the book, “we need to work on the university when we work at the university.”

This is not labor that should be asked of marginalized faculty, who are already shouldering more unpaid and undervalued labors in the academy.

As TSW author Acclimatrix recently also wrote, there are many kinds of labors in the academy.  One way to be a respectful, kind colleague if you’re a white scholar in the academy is to take on some of the labor of working ON academia while working IN academia.

The Resistance is futile (but it doesn’t have to be)

I’ve been engaging in some resistance activities in the last few months, as one does in these times. Organizations, marches, and coalitions are sprouting like Bernie Sanders stickers on Subarus this time last year. People are fired up, doing things for the first time. And that’s great, it really is! It’s so inspiring to see the new energy, the sense of urgency and purpose, because we’re all coming together for the great cause of equality.

Except when it’s not, because we aren’t.

Before you quit reading or accuse me of being divisive, let me explain: many of my colleagues and friends are new to activism. Trump’s election terrified them and lit a fire under their bums to the point where they are finding themselves doing things — activist, things — they never imagined: calling officials, protesting, rallying, writing letters and op-eds, hanging out at Standing Rock or occupying offices. And many folks are joining or starting new organizations to try to Do Something, Anything, Right Now, to Make Me Feel Like it’s All Going to Be Okay (TM).

What’s the problem with that, you might be asking? Isn’t that good? What could go wrong?

The problem is this: Continue reading

A woman’s place is on the syllabus

We’ve been busy. Organizing, mourning, resting, strategizing, spending time with loved ones – not to mention all our paid (+unpaid) labor as academics.

As TSW writers and readers know all too well, our work (every dimension of it) didn’t just begin nor will it end with the change of any administration. For many of us though, the work  (every dimension of it) feels more urgent now than ever.

There’s a lot more to say, and lots of voices we want to feature in this space to speak, to listen, to make change.

And we also need to – and do – act “in real life.” *

There is SO MUCH to do though, that it can feel overwhelming. And in our role as academics, especially in a climate that wants to censure topics and conversations in the classroom (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) and eliminate academic freedom by eliminating tenure (Exhibit A, Exhibit B), what can we do?

I think lots of things, and lots of “small” things that add up. Which brings me to:

A woman’s place is in the syllabus.

Continue reading

Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue

“You’re such a productive academic mama! I didn’t do anything the first 4 months after my kid was born.”

Reading this recently in my inbox was unsettling. It was in reference to the fact that I was writing and replying to emails, with an infant at home.  What the sender didn’t, doesn’t, understand is that I don’t feel like I have much of a choice.  As an early career academic trying to figure out The Next Steps (AKA someone hire / fund me please!), there are a round of grant + fellowship deadlines this fall that won’t come up again for at least another year. And by then I won’t be eligible for at least one of them. In other words, external forces just don’t care what else I have going on. Their deadlines are not negotiable.

To some extent, I get it. I really do. I’ve ended up backing out of or turning down several things this fall that understandably are time-sensitive and involve large groups of other people- conferences, workshops. Deadlines and set time-frames help organize these groups and keep everyone on task. And these opportunities are important, but I just couldn’t make them work this fall.* One workshop required that I teach a module to peers on a pre-determined schedule, which I couldn’t commit to [with an infant nursing on demand who isn’t taking a bottle]. One conference was willing to let me present remotely/electronically, but said I had to commit to being available to answer questions live [again, I didn’t think that was a realistic option personally].

But I truly do not believe that this kind of inflexibility needs to be true for all academic opportunities. I feel especially strong about this when it comes to grant deadlines.  Continue reading

When should you (or your students) defend?

At first shrug, this sounds like a simple question: when should you defend your dissertation, whether that’s MS or PhD (or other terminal degrees like MFA)?  If you’re an advisor, when should you let your students defend?

The ‘right’ answer could be: when they’re ready. Of course! But the timing of that, in practice, is far more complicated.  I strongly believe part of good mentoring is helping students move onto The Next Thing – whether that’s another degree, a postdoc, an academic job, a non-academic job, or something else.  So the timing of students’ defense and graduation should help them get there.

What’s so complicated then?  Lots of things. Continue reading