Academia and the New World

Academia has always been a foreign place to me.  I have always felt like a visitor, never a proprietor.  Whether it has been the Academic “speak”, the alienating “readings” at conferences or the “Ivory Tower” approach to a communal practice, I have always felt like an “other” within these spaces.  As an undergraduate and graduate student I was always able to remain “the other”, in a “safe space” where I could feel oppositional against Academia.  I would question it all the way through the process.

Since becoming a professor, oppositional practices within Academia has become murky.  In this poor economy, the ability to take make stuff, take risks and be awesome within Academia has become more intimidating, yet more vital than ever.  The process has become more involved.  There are more stakes, before I paid to be where I was, now I am paid to be where I am.  The end result is one of balance.  I have to work literally as part of the system and also maintain progress towards change and also effectively question my process enough as to not become stagnant.

Thus far this process sounds like many other struggles others have faced and in this day and age, people are facing struggles like this daily, much like we always have.  The persistants for resistance however has to remain.  In order for new trajectories in academia to become a reality.

As I end my stay at my first institution I have learned a couple of things:

 Even though your whole life you were told to “be who you are”, in many academic environments this is just lip service.  Throughout my whole tenure at my first university I was refered to my colleagues as different, and not in a good way.  My outspokenness was seen as aggressive rather than inquisitive.  I quickly learned you were not to speak up within most meetings, unless it was a group who were truly confident in themselves.  I learned that people who were confident with themselves spoke more openly and freely with each other and accepted constructive criticism as a way to progress projects, research and collaborations forwards, not as turf wars, ego trips or placation.  I also learned that in meetings where you were dealing with sub par leadership if you spoke up you were seen as “against them” and if you didn’t speak up you were seen as “with them”, so no matter what you did you were rarely able to add constructive perspectives.

You can have mentors and bosses who applaud your work in person and in closed meetings and in secret reviews voice negative, degrading, untrue tales about you, as well as put them on official letterhead.  At my first university this was common practice.  I would meet with my boss regularly and he would tell me everything was fine, we met for three years straight every week for my last three years.  Then when I was denied tenure in my packet was an unsolicited letter from him declaring my lack of ability to be a professor citing untrue tales.

Your colleagues really are not your friends.  What I mean by this is that even the kindest, nicest colleagues will fend for themselves when shit hits the fan.  If you do make a friend out of a colleague cherish it.  But rarely if ever will a colleague put their job on the line with you.   In confidence I had multiple faculty members declare I was screwed over, but in public they would not speak up.  I got empathy from so many, and they were sincere, they would shake their heads about the situation and know I was in the right, but none would do anything.

I guess as a minority or someone who came from a background where you built systems of trust and networks of camaraderie, I had become accustom to colleagues who “had your back” and would stand up for you and common principles.  But I quickly learned when money was involved (aka yours and their salaries, compared to being grad students, paying), the ability to have people really stand up for you falls very quickly.  And in many ways I do understand how easy it is to look the other way.  We all have our own lives, we have our financial obligations, our research projects, etc…

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity is something that has to be practiced and enforced in order for it to actually exist.  Meaning that while you may have a diversity, inclusion or equity issue, unless your institution actually has a system setup to enforce these values, you have no actual mobility or ability to enforce such values.  My first university has a “mission statement” with core values, however they were just words, not actually upheld by a governing body.  I found this out when I learned that “institutional fit” revolved around the mission values, however they were not actually addressed in a formal way throughout the tenure process.  Instead I quickly learned it was the letters by faculty that were more important, with hearsay being the guide of institutional fit rather than actual quantitative or qualitative adherence to the mission.  A good institution should have a clear process laid out for how one gains “institutional fit”.  When I was found not to have institutional fit, there was no quantitative or qualitative reasoning for my denial of tenure, just a statement that I lacked institutional fit.  No follow up meetings either.  I do know not all institutions are this way, I am just sharing my own experience.  This experience was truly alienating and discomforting.  It made me feel like a failure, without any pointer other than letters that said I spoke up too much in meetings and they didn’t like the way I dressed.  Being an “other in academia”.  It should also be emphasized at this point, that just a year earlier I was recognized for all my work, aka my teaching, my scholarship, my administrative work and my professional work and given a substantial raise and promoted to the level of Associate Professor.

Documentation is worthless when your university knows for every truth you can tell, they can fabricate two lies and back it up with a big financial war chest for lawsuits.  This was made clear to me when I was caught up in a very unfortunate occurrence with the passing of one of my students and I was asked to accompany students to the funeral in another city.  This occurrence led me to comfort and ultimately mentor the affected students in a very close way that built resentment.  It also created an “us vs them” situation where my bosses saw me as a pathway to my students and so if my students voiced disdain for the how the student passed away it was reflected on me.  And of course if I ever brought up this situation affecting the students, it was noted (I would later learn my bosses talked about it in private and would write about it in my letters for tenure).  Even writing this article makes me nervous to be completely honest.  However I feel this is a story that needs to be told.

Treat your students as you want to be treated.  One thing I learned throughout this process was to stick to my convictions.  Multiple times I was told by my colleagues I was “too good of friends with my students”.  What they didn’t understand is that my students are not my friends, but I treat my customers like they are my friends and my students are my customers, thus they get the best treatment.

Go to other universities, conferences and make friends, colleagues and network.  Also get to know the city you are in, know the politics and the various “scenes”.  Doing this in my opinion helps you keep track of yourself beyond your own institution.  For example I have gone to a couple conferences and film festivals and while I do not directly identify with any of them they helped me gain perspective of academia and my profession beyond just my university.  I also regularly visit other universities and give presentations and also invite colleagues to come and speak.  This helps give me an idea of what other campuses are like and also allows me to gain an outsiders perspective of the campus I am on.  And it builds my network.

I also quickly delved into the politics of the town to figure out who is who and how things get done and where the money goes in the town I am in.  I met the mayor, the county commissioners, city council members, state reps and others so that I would have the potential to build a network that scales as my research and projects scale.

Have a couple close friends.  Also get a counselor or life coach. You should should surround yourself with people who you know are looking out for you, both at your job and in personal life.  For me I have a couple close friends and I also go to counseling as needed to help me plan out my future.   I am also very fortunate to have a wife that is also an academic and we support each other heavily.  I will admit it has helped being a dual income family.

If you want a sure bet, just assimilate.  I did not do this.  I did not listen to my colleagues and bosses, instead of cutting my mohawk and dressing like everyone else I was who I believe I should be able to be.  I spoke up in meetings and made clear any concerns I had.  I also listened in meetings and took lots of notes.  I also had side meetings when I needed clarification on things.  The more I assimilated and just acted the way people wanted me to, the more they liked me, but they respected me less in a very unsaid way.  So to reiterate, assimilate if you want a sure thing.  Be like everyone else, put on a smile and just bear it.  When you get tenure you can be who you want.  For me I just do not believe in this approach, I believe in order for a paradigm shift to happen in academia it needs to happen before tenure is received.

Document your work and progress.  I cannot emphasize this enough, make sure you take the time to document and publish your works without prompt from others, whether it is in journals or a self published blog, make sure you are able to share your work.  I have done this since I was an undergraduate and while it paid off then, it has paid off even more in since becoming a professor.  Photos, videos, write-ups and endorsements all have helped me gain an audience and a rapport beyond what my University saw me as.

If you do not see the job you want or place you can publish, create your own.  I ran into this a lot.  After graduating with my PhD I quickly learned there were few if any real rules to making it in academia.  Meaning that your job title or where you publish is very malleable.  As “other” academics, I would like to emphasize it is ok for us to make our own rules, to make our own playgrounds in order to add to the canon’s for which we were taught.  It is what our mentors and their mentors did, it is how “new” is created.

To this end I took it upon myself to create my own trajectory.  I created my own look, my own androgocial approach based off my learning, I developed my own research methods and for me personally I decided I wanted my work to be civically engaged.  I put into practice my graduate realization that degrees do not matter when it comes to getting things done and that I would not have a “first author” approach to research initiatives.  So when I went to important meetings where I was invited to collaborate I would take my students and any community academics that were interested with me.  The result is a fluidity between the ivory tower and the groups I collaborate with.  What has resulted is I have been able to create a network where everyone is learning from each other, whether a freshman, a non degree holding community member or a CEO or executive director.

In terms of publishing I personally have found self publishing goes a long way and I also believe that when there is not a journal for what you do, make one.  Get open journal system or start with a wordpress.  Put together a set of trusted peers to review and build out your perspective and canon.  This is how “new” is created.

Failure is part of the process.  Embrace it.  One thing I have seen so many colleagues and students run into is the concern of failure.  One thing I had to remind myself throughout my process of becoming a professor is that if I preach to my students that it’s ok to fail as long as you document and learn from it, then I need to follow my own rules as well.

So what does this really mean?  It means I have to actively test my limits of what I am capable of.  I have to learn what I am good at and what I am need to work on.  It also means that I use my trusted network to confide in and work through my failures with.  But ultimately I have to embrace failure, I have to understand I will mess up.  I won’t have all the qualifications or all the answers, but as long as I am earnest about my work, earnest with my intent and am open to changes and new challenges, I have what it takes to progress forward.  I have run into so many colleagues and students who see a job or research project that they do not feel qualified for due to one or two qualifications out of 10-20.  I cannot emphasize enough to still apply, to be earnest about your lack of qualification and have some way of either picking up the skill before hand or ask for on the job training.  Often times it is your other skills that will outshine and make universities want you to be part of their team.

Buy the Porsche.  So what do I mean by this?  Set your budget when you get hired to pay back any debt, learn about the public servant repayment plan and the income based repayment plan offered by the government.  If you blew credit cards up in grad school, do some debt consolidation.  Make a budget.  I personally owed 157k, I will save around 100K by using those repayment plans.  So why do I say “buy the Porsche”, well I kept putting it off this whole time and if I had just bought it, I would own it by now and not still be yearning for one.  Whatever your “Porsche” is, go ahead and see if you can work it in when you start your job.  In my opinion you need some kinda reward.  For some their “Porsche” may be starting a nonprofit or small business, aka a side-hustle.  Whatever it is, do not give up on it.  When I find my next job, it will be the first thing to happen.