I am here, despite it all

The elections have taken over everything. It’s been the dominant topic of conversation I overhear in the streets and on the bus; it’s what my colleagues and students talk about over breaks and occasionally in the classroom; and it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People are rattled and they are truly afraid. Too many posts have been written about this at this point for me to even try to link to them all.

I want to use this post to offer a slightly different perspective. I am a foreign scholar, currently on a temporary contract and looking to find permanent employment in the United States. A few months ago I applied for a Green Card, and I’m still waiting for that process to run its course. This post is about what it’s like to decide to adopt a country that seems to have decided it may not want to adopt you back. I say this despite the fact that I know not a single person who’s expressed this thought to me, but clearly those people are out there. So while my American friends are talking about despairing and even leaving the country, I am working hard to become a member of their community. I’ve had several conversations with them about why I chose to come and stay here, and what my other options might be. Their desperation seems commensurate with their awareness of what things are like outside the United States,* so this post is my attempt to explain my own thinking on this topic.

In my home country, I am not a racial or religious minority. But I hold political views that are never represented in government and decision making, and I hold no hope that this will change any time soon. Some of my activist friends do amazing work protesting policies they disagree with and hateful decisions and actions taken in their names, but the work is incredibly time-consuming. For most, it’s taken over their lives and has become a second job. For me personally, there are no jobs in my field there, and it’s not clear that I could live there even if I wanted to. Most of my friends who have similar backgrounds and goals as me have left for other countries, although most hold out hope of being able to one day return.

I have lived in several European countries. Europe was a big paradox for me. I lived in countries where I felt incredibly comfortable, and where I was not, myself, a persecuted minority. Or, at least, the opinions were probably there, but it wasn’t acceptable to express them out loud and I never once felt singled out or hated. Yet I can’t ignore the fact that others are now persecuted minorities, that immigrants are disliked,** and most importantly, that these same countries have a track record of ruthlessly dispatching with their minorities, to put it mildly. Parts of my family were some of those minorities. It shaped how my parents were raised and how I grew up; it’s a central issue in my life that has shaped my personality and my belief system. Being comfortable in Europe scared me, because my ancestors who felt the same paid for it with their lives.

For close to a decade now, I have lived in the United States. This is where my home and family are. I have no illusions that it’s a perfect country. It’s not. If ever there was a doubt, the current political climate reminds us that there is much work left to do. But the United States was formed on values of freedom and liberty. It is one of the most diverse countries I know. It has federal, state, and local governments. Civil society plays a big role in our daily lives. There are many opportunities to contribute and make a difference. I want to believe that here, atrocities like those that happened elsewhere cannot happen.***

Here, I am a minority. You wouldn’t immediately know it from my accent or how I look, so I am one of the lucky ones. But I am not oblivious to the hateful speech around me. Yet even with its imperfections, I take America to be one of the most successful social experiments of the modern era. Things are difficult all over, but that’s not a reason to give up. I choose to fight to make my adopted country better, and in the process to make my own life better. I started with small gestures: a sign on my office door ensuring all that they are welcome here; chats with students to reaffirm the same and to make myself available as a source of information and support; donations to organizations such as PP and the ACLU; local demonstrations. I am hoping to find a local organization to volunteer with.

I hope that others will accept me and join me. I refuse to believe that this is something the US cannot recover from, even if it does get far worse before it gets better. It’s up to all of us not to give up. This is a golden opportunity to restart the fight at the grassroots level, to rethink how we reach out to others and how things got to be this way. Mostly, I hold onto a broader perspective, and I retain my optimism. Hard work and faith have gotten me this far, and I am counting on them–and on you–not to disappoint me going forward.

 

* and how things really are here in the States. Things haven’t actually changed that much – but some of those who could previously be oblivious now can’t do that anymore. Noticing the racist, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, … sentiments can be horrifying if you never knew they existed, or you thought they were only held by a fringe minority. Those who despair the most appear to be not those who face these sentiments, but those privileged ones who weren’t aware of them before, and hence whose worlds were shaken up the most.

** as evidenced by recent election results in several of these countries.

*** and that I’ll fight with all my heart to stop any such attempts. And that I’ll know to get out in time if I lose the battle. Because I am optimistic, but not naive.

Professors- Don’t Panic, Organize

I have put off writing this post until the absolute last minute because I still don’t know how to talk about the election, and yet I can’t seem to talk about anything else. What does it mean for my queer marriage? What does it mean for my undocumented students? What does it mean for my community college where we live and die by Pell Grants? I have been selfish- thinking mainly of myself and making contingency plans from the banal (get personal documents in order) to the ridiculous (preserve all the vegetables so we can eat underground after a nuclear apocalypse). It is only in the past week that I have started to think collectively, and remembered that community, allies, and coalitions are the best place to start.

In academia, we are horrible at collective action. The structure of our disciplines creates silos, and our research can lend itself too readily to isolation and over-inflated egos. We start to believe we only need our impressive intellects to thrive in the world. As contingent faculty have taken on more labor to free the select few who have access to tenure, we have wrapped ourselves in the comforting lie of meritocracy. “It should be this way,” we tell ourselves, “the system is working.” At best we think, “I don’t have time to deal with these massive structural problems in my field.* I am trying to write my book.”

We have forgotten how to work together for systemic change. Humanists in particular write about social justice movements. We don’t often participate in them. In fact, the folks I have seen in the greatest state of panic are my tenured colleagues and mentors. I think it has been a long time since they confronted this level of vulnerability. I think of Slavoj Žižek delighted with himself as he publicly endorsed Donald Trump for his disruptive potential. It felt so familiar. The white, leftist professors I knew in my graduate program have made similar flippant remarks. Privilege is a powerful enabler of delusion.

This week I started doing small things. I began reinforcing my emotional support network, which overlaps with the network of activists and organizers in my local community. I took time to call my friends, near and far. I worked with a few other professors and the student equity program to organize an event for vulnerable students to come and talk about their reactions to the election. We created a poster campaign with messages of inclusion and acceptance to paper the hallways of our campus. These are tiny steps. The next ones will be crucial. I hope we can unlearn that academic privilege that asks us to be individuals with great minds, and relearn how communities strike back against injustice in all its forms.

*sexual harassment, racism in hiring and promotion practices, contingent labor, rising tuition and student debt…

 

 

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

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.

Guest Post: What I did on my furlough “vacation.”

Today’s post is a little different. We’re featuring a guest contribution from microbiologist Laura Williams, who was impacted by the recent government shutdown. You can follow her at @MicroWavesSci. Enjoy!

On October 1, I was furloughed from my position as a postdoc at a federal agency because of the government shutdown. This agency will remain nameless because I am not supposed to talk about the furlough, the government shutdown or the ridiculous mess in Congress in any official capacity. So, nameless it will remain. After a little over two weeks of ridiculous Congressional theatrics, a deal was struck, and I returned to work along with 800,000 other federal employees.

My unexpected furlough “vacation” prompted me to think a lot about what it means to be a scientist.

Continue reading