Academics and Deplorables

As an academic blogger, I hoped to never write the words Donald Trump, but I need to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the ubiquitous threat that men like Trump and his apologists pose to women’s wellbeing in the workplace and the world. Since the video exploded all over my Twitter feed on Friday evening, I have been troubled by how familiar Trump’s words are to me, and to the many talented women whose work I read on the internet. Kelly Oxford solicited stories of women’s first assaults. The resulting thread is agonizing in its chronicle of casual violence against women and girls.

 

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Anne Helen Petersen pushed back against the tendency of many men to challenged Trump’s definition of “locker room talk” with their own stories of male only spaces where women are respected. As a subtle version of #NotAllMen, this line of argument allows men to ignore their unwillingness to acknowledge or intervene against misogyny.

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And Jessica Valenti wrote perhaps the most poignant statement of all in her column in The Guardian. She says the video is “painful to watch not just because Zucker doesn’t know what was said about her, but because this is what women are afraid of. That the men we know, the men we work with – or even love – say horrible things about us. That despite assurances that they respect us and consider us equals, men are secretly winking behind our back. That we are not really people to them, but things.”

In short, Trump’s gleeful, self-aggrandizing admission of sexual assault is not shocking to me. It is all too familiar. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen professional and educational contexts from my childhood to the present where men have said or done horrifically inappropriate things to me. But I want to revisit one instance from my Middle School pre-Algebra class. Avoid that boys will be boys impulse, y’all. Men of all ages move through the world with power and privilege and need to be held accountable for their actions.

I was in seventh grade and taking pre-Algebra. I was relatively new to my school as an army brat who moved every two years or so, but I was starting to make some friends in the class. We had taken a quiz and the teacher was handing it back with a grade. I got a 98% and sheepishly placed the quiz on my desk while my nosy classmates looked over my shoulder. Two boys near me began laughing and asked me if I had given the teacher a blow job to get that grade. This became a running joke for the rest of school year with a growing cadre of participants. In this way, my good math grades became shameful to me. In retrospect, I realize this is the year when I decided I was not good at math, a myth that I kept with me until very recently when I began learning about stereotype threat around STEM for girls. I’m an English professor now, and I teach about stereotype threat in my writing class. We watch Debbie Sterling’s excellent TED Talk about her invention Goldiblox, an engineering tool for girls. It was not until I watched this video that I realized: actually, I am good at math. I finished 2 semesters of College Calculus my senior year of high school. How can I carry around this belief that I can’t succeed in that subject area? I wonder how many women have been sexually harassed out of STEM fields by mediocre men.

I love writing for a blog with a large readership of women scientists, because I get a better sense of what women are up against in male-dominated academic fields. In some ways, I am privileged as a Humanist, but even in a field where the gender balance is more equal, my women colleagues and friends face ubiquitous sexual harassment at their colleges and universities. One of my acquaintances quit her tenure-track job due to sexual harassment. Another had to change dissertation advisors when her chair began relentlessly propositioning her. My point is, Trump’s treatment of women in general, or of Arianne Zucker at her workplace in the video, is not unique to the deplorables. Sexual harassment and assault determine the fields where women pursue their talents, determine our career outcomes, determine our mental and physical health. I hope this election makes academics rethink our comfortable superiority in relation to the mass of Trump supporters and look more deeply at how we got here, and what we are going to do about it.

Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Continue reading

Valuing chronically ill graduate students

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Many states issue “special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked.” Working under these rules, a disabled person can expect to make less than $4/hour. Some people think paying disabled people less is a good thing, as shown by this response when Maryland ended sub-minimum wages for disabled people:

If a worker is less productive, should they be paid less? This is not an abstract question for me.

Continue reading

How to Publish Without Institutional Support

My institution defines me as a teacher. I knew this when I accepted a job teaching a 5-5 load a community college. Publication is not a part of my tenure review process, but teaching evaluations are, and I take part in an elaborate observation of my classes each year. The thing is, I am trained as a researcher and I define myself as a scholar, which to me means equal parts research, writing, and instruction. I was one of those people in graduate school who couldn’t wait to start my dissertation. Even as I have come to see myself as more of a teacher and found real meaning in working with my students, I feel a need to go beyond the classroom, to try and solve the systemic problems I see in my institution and community colleges more generally through inquiry and writing. This post is a look at my ongoing struggle to make space for the part of myself that is a writer in a teaching-focused job.

Problem 1: No Writing/Researching Community

Research is not exactly frowned upon at my institution, but there are not many folks around me who see themselves as researchers or academic writers. Lacking the environment of a research-focused community, I have to seek out like-minded scholars elsewhere. We have a four-year college in our town, and so far I have been lucky to meet junior scholars (on the tenure track and adjunct) to talk with about writing. I am learning to go out of my way to maintain scholarly community. I have no conference funding, but there are ways to finagle some travel money from our professional development funds at my college. Most importantly, I have become more assertive with my communications within my field. If I am writing something, I send emails to senior-scholar acquaintances I met during graduate school. I have them read my work. I have them suggest others I should be engaging with. Some senior scholars ignore my emails. But by and large, I have had great success and continue to nurture connections in my field.

Problem 2: No University Library

Books, articles, dissertations. I had no idea how lucky I was to have access to a university library system for 10 years of my life in higher ed. I have not figured out how to work around this constraint. I can interlibrary loan one book at a time for a few weeks, and our library provides access to some databases (JSTOR primarily). But electronic journals- no. Ongoing acquisitions to maintain an up-to-date collection- definitely no. Opportunities to suggest books that I would like to see in the collection- nope. The library budget is extraordinarily limited at community colleges with most of the focus on students and their needs. Fair enough. But this makes me more or less an independent scholar. Open access is my rallying cry. There is no such thing as academic meritocracy if some scholars have their access limited by paywalls.

Problem 3- No Research Funding

This problem has been surprisingly simple to get around. I have started applying for funding through professional organizations and external grants (I’ll let you know how that goes). I also have the option to spread my salary out over 12 months. With the academic year of about 9 months, this leaves me the entire summer to travel, write, and get my work out. The main problem is the timing. I managed to get two articles out this summer, but I will not likely have the time to return to them until winter break at the earliest. Depending on the time reviewers spend with the drafts, I may not be working on those pieces again until next summer, with actual publication dates some time in the year after that. I can see my current summer-writing strategy working for shorter pieces like articles and book chapters, but my ambition to complete a monograph does not seem feasible when I can only write for 2-3 months of the year. And there is that furious voice in my head that says no one should produce academic work without compensation. This is why we are increasingly undervalued as workers and professionals. I am not currently compensated for my scholarly work. Should I give it up? I can’t see myself doing that any time soon.

I am certain there are more and more of us in this position. How many scholars are spread between adjunct gigs, postdocs, visiting assistant professorships, and community college jobs? I imagine a lot of us struggle with finding  resources- be they time, money, community, or the promise of professional advancement- to keep writing. If research without compensation is the new norm, we are going to need to think seriously about how to pay for scholarship, and create access to all of us doing scholarly work.

 

 

Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading

Is Tenure Worth All the Trouble?

A few months ago, I became a full professor! Much like when I earned tenure (I just changed that word from received to earned), for a while I was in a haze of disbelief. Was the quest really over? Was anything different?

In both cases the resounding answer for me was yes. I’m really happy at the new opportunities, freedom and empowerment the promotions have provided.

Our blog focus on real difficulties, impediments and challenges the road to tenure can contain for women.  In a later post, I’ll talk about why entering grad school significantly later than most people may have made the road a bit smoother for me than some. Meanwhile here are my top 3 reasons each promotion has been awesome.

Three reasons becoming a Tenured Associate Professor was Awesome

  1. I could explore research, writing and outreach projects that may not lead to grants or publications, while continuing existing productive projects in order to continue to advance in scholarship.
  2. I could take on a position in the upper administration and develop new initiatives for my institution, which was viewed favorably in my review for Full Professor. In this position I regularly interacted with the Dean and Associate Deans and work with faculty of all stages. It gave me a new appreciation and a more holistic view of my institution.
  3. I could say no to “being a new shiny happy prof face” for visitors and parents because there were new people to do that, while saying yes to some important all-campus committees.

Three reasons being a Full Professor is Awesome

  1. Interacting with other professors feels different.   At a recent conference I had more confidence to approach other full professors as a peer. I still have less experience, but many of them are my age (or younger) and it feels nice to (at least in my own mind feel like I) belong at the table. After I served on a career panel, many untenured professors came to me to ask advice. It was great to be able to share my experience and be generous with my time.
  2. I can serve in roles that are important to my institution, such as member of the tenure and reappointment committee or Dean.
  3. I have been freed from the looming promotion-centered hoops that must be identified, understood and jumped through. That is so liberating. I can take greater risks in my teaching and research without fear. Teaching evaluations will inform my practice but not threaten my job status. I can devote time to professional service at a national level.

Figuring out a new department

The first day of class is upon us. I am at a new school, and doing my best to figure out the culture of the institution, the students, and my department, without committing any major faux pax. Faculty orientation gave me the institution’s official beliefs about who it thinks it is, and that is useful. I am very glad I went. But that can only go so far. How do I really find out what the undercurrents are? I can’t see them, but at every institution that I have been at, they have inevitably existed. I am in a temporary position, but it is one that the department is most likely going to begin a TT search for in the coming year. So in many ways, this is an extended job interview, and my job is to not mess it up.*

They talk to me about enrollment numbers and bringing students into the major. I hold back from telling them that with them losing all the faculty in my sub-field and bringing me in just a few weeks ago, it would be a bit much to expect students not to take notice and act accordingly.** They encourage me to begin new initiatives and join multiple projects, but it’s not yet clear to me that there is funding around to support any of it. At least among the faculty members who I interact with more regularly, there seems to be genuine good will. I do really like the enthusiasm, but I do my best to both guard my time and make smart choices about whose suggestions I take seriously.

Since getting here, I have taken several steps to try to better understand my department’s culture:

1. Attended all official orientations of every kind. If nothing else, they have been a useful way of making new friends in a new city.

2. Had an official meeting with the Chair and DGS to ask about expectations from me as a new faculty member in the department, as well as students’ expectations from me as an instructor. A lot of it was silly stuff that I just needed answered: do I print materials or can I expect the students to? how much reading can I expect them to do in a week? what do they actually learn in prereq X?

3. Unofficially chatted with students and asked them versions of the same questions. Noted the variability in answers but mostly the constants.

4. Invited other young faculty members out for coffee. They are going to be very important for my mental health.***

5. Talked to off-campus mentors about what they know (which unfortunately for me, in this case, isn’t all that much).

6. Observed. Sat quietly in talks and social events and tried to make sense of who sits next to whom, who speaks sarcastically of whom when they are not in the room, etc. This one really scares me — I am convinced that there are some intrigues between some senior faculty members, and that they run deep.**** But I can’t quite figure out what they are.

Being the new gal can be disorienting. But as the new year begins, I am determined to be happy and productive, and to do my best to steer clear of trouble. Now if only I were better at detecting it…

How have you dealt with invisible inner-departmental politics at a new institution?

 

*And at the same time, also not to get over-excited about it. Hiring decisions are as complex as they are obscure.

**Relatedly and worryingly, this department has failed to tenure three young women in the past few years. Men don’t quite seem to have the same problem. So, there’s that.

***Speaking of which, I’ve also already made sure I have a PCP and an understanding of the mental health system here, in case I need to use it. If there is one thing I’ve learned is that this is something to figure out now, when I’m doing well, and not when I’m in a crisis.

****And that they affect hiring decisions.