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Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Activism

Here’s my second paper for #sblaar14, which was an invited talk about activism at the junior level. This was another strong panel with a small audience. Unsurprisingly, I took the prompt “Can we BE activists at the junior level?” as an excuse to think about activism’s relationship to not only religious studies but also the modern university. It is a small miracle that there’s so little cursing.

Can we be activists at the junior level? Hell.

Kelly J. Baker

Over the summer, I mentioned to a dear colleague and mentor of mine that I would be participating on a panel about activism at the junior level. He laughed at me. “How can you be on a panel about activism at the junior level,” he asked, “when you never made it to the junior level?” His question was also my question when I received the invitation to join this panel. My name, it seems, pops up when you ask people about activists in religious studies. This is puzzling and also sad.

I’m at best adjacent to academia. I took a year off, which is now a year and a half, and I have no plans to return. After six years on the job market, I bowed out. Publicly. I’m now a freelance writer, who covers higher ed, gender, and religion. I never made it to the junior level (if we’re defining junior as assistant professor. I’m not sure we should).

Yet, I’m at the AAR presenting on a panel about activism, even though I wouldn’t label myself an activist. This is a label applied to me because I write starkly about higher ed and sometimes my own discipline. Maybe my bar for activism is too high, and writing should count. Maybe everyone else’s bar is too low. Yet, I agreed to participate for two reasons. First, I still care deeply about this field we call religious studies, despite my attempts not to. Second, I have things to say about about the role of academic activism in the age of contingency. I’ve lived with this question since I received the invitation. I’m not sure I have any good answers, only more questions.

First, I want to tweak the initial question. Instead of “can you be an activist at the junior level?”, I ask, “Can you be an activist if you are perpetually on the job market?” My tentative answer is a firm “no.” Under the current job market, in which contractual is king and tenure track is not, anything you write, say, or do can be held against you. Members of search committees admit that they look for reasons to ELIMINATE candidates rather than keep them. The question of activism is even more fraught for contingent workers, who work at the whim of department chairs and heads. With positions that can be terminated at any time, certain kinds of activism might prove too risky while others might guarantee you are back for another semester. (more…)

On Graduate School Orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. One guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. (more…)

Self-Respect

“I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire with no crucifix in hand,” Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect,” 1961.

Recently, I had a low week (which turned into weeks), in which every bad decision, failing, and the general wrong turns weighed upon me. I was left unhappy, brittle, and shaken. In truth, these days/weeks come less frequently than they once did. After a year away from academia, I’m no longer constantly plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. They exist as a low hum rather than a blaring radio. I still doubt myself, but I’m mostly content. I’m not quite fearless, but I am less afraid.

I recognized this bad mood as it settled upon me. I even knew why it occurred. Yet that profound feeling of not liking one’s self lingered. It was a discomforting moment where I evaluated my life and my person. The only thing to find was shortcomings, doubt, and unease. I became angry at myself for giving into the existential funk. I know intellectually that my life contains much good and happiness, but it is hard to find my way to it once the funk sets in. My mood runs dark, and my confidence dissipates. Unruly affect trumps intellect every time.

Instead of mentally reciting all of my failings, I picked up Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” I’ve read and reread it many times. Notes scrawl in the margins. Passages underlined in blue and black dominate the page. Didion’s prose is unflinching and brutal. Her stark honesty appeals to me. Her words pierce polite niceties as she forces to think about what happens when we face ourselves. “Innocence ends,” she writes, “when one is stripped of the delusion of liking one’s self” (142). What happens to us when we confront who we are not who we imagine ourselves to be? What are we left with when we inspect ourselves without the benefit of rosy visions but stark assessment? This moment when delusion dissipates is when she “lost the conviction that the lights would always turn green for me” (143).

Self-deception proves difficult. Didion explains:

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others–who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without (143).

To lack self-respect, then, is to be subject to “an interminable documentary” of one’s failures (144). Failures emerge as our constant companions, and we stake our worth on fickle reputations and mercurial approval of others. This is no way to live.  Didion relies upon a phrase that dominated my childhood: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”  While adults wield the phrase as explanation for punishment, Didion notes that the only way to sleep in that bed is to have self-respect, which is our reconciliation with ourselves.  Accepting responsibility for one’s own life is the first step to self-respect (145).

Didion convinces me that self-respect is not something we have or don’t have, but rather it is habit that we can develop through practice. We can train ourselves to recognize our intrinsic worth. It becomes discipline. Self worth gives us the ability “to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147). We abandon those debilitating notions of self that rely solely on the opinions of others. The goal is “to give us back to ourselves” (148).

I find myself working at the habit of self-respect, trying to ignore the notions of who I am that others cling to and trying to find who exactly is inhabiting the bed I made. This process isn’t easy as much of my self-worth has been defined externally by the lines on my CV, the list of accomplishments I could point to, and the desire for people to be proud of me.

When the CV no longer mattered and the accomplishments have no currency outside of academia, I found myself lacking. I craved the external validation that I was used to. I was disquieted by the person I’d become.

In “Bathroom Sink,” Miranda Lambert captures how I feel (like she so often does):

It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see
In my reflection and I can’t get out of the way
I’m lookin’ forward to the girl I wanna be
But regret has a way of starin’ me right in the face
So I try not to waste too much time at the bathroom sink

Here’s the thing: I’m tired of dodging the bathroom mirror. I’m tired of rejection and regret. I’m tired of judging myself by the standards of other people. I’m tired of my happiness being tied to what I have or haven’t accomplished. I’m done with the profound sense of failure that creeps up on me in my quiet moments.

I’m building my habit of self-respect, so doubts annoy me, not paralyze me. The lights might not turn green, but that doesn’t mean that they are always red either. I’m learning to sleep well in the bed I’ve made because it is mine alone.

 

On Writing and Selling Out

“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion explains in the opening pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. These words clawed at me days after reading them in December. Now months later, the words still scratch at me when I begin to write.

Didion’s words give me pause as I start new columns and projects. Do writers, implicitly or purposefully, sell out those we write about? Do we craft the stories of others for our own purposes whether it be fame, money, or bylines?

Didion’s insight could just as easily be applied to academic writing as well. Do academics sell out the people we research, analyze, and write? Sometimes, I fear that we do. When we turn people into our objects of study, we stake a claim about what kind of people are studied and what kind of people do the studying. Those demarcations contain judgment that makes me uneasy because I’m complicit too.

Writing is always our crafting of their stories; the author/scholar decides what becomes significant, what we need to learn, and what is valuable.  I, then, wonder about writing’s relationship with the telling the truth. With journalism, there’s an assumption of “just the facts, Ma’am” as a method to truth (of which I’m skeptical). Non-fiction writing seems to be about making the best of narratives that we are given. Familiar stories surface. They are repeated and sometimes contested. Certain narrative rhythms catch our attentions. They lull us into repetition, and repetition gives a ring of truth. Yet, we all lie too.

Who do we sell out?

When It Hurts To Write

Almost all of my scholarly life, I’ve researched, written, and taught about depressing topics: the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, doomsday prophets, apocalypticism, religious intolerance, horror, and zombies. I spent more than six years of my life analyzing Klan newspapers; too many hours to count making myself familiar with the construction, deployment, and privilege of white supremacy.

Friends, acquaintances, and random strangers ask how I managed to write about people that unsettle us. I shrugged the question off with a smile and a flip comment about my sense of humor and inflated sense of optimism. Sometimes, I would say with conviction: “I write about these people and these topics because someone has to.” This was a burden I claimed to demonstrate the importance of my work. The research was unpleasant, but it was also intellectually stimulating.  I needed to figure out why the Klan appealed to white men and women. I could bracket my own discomfort for my research projects.

My students wondered about my mental health because of my areas of research. “You’re so pleasant and friendly,” more than one of them noted. My affect didn’t match my scholarly interests. I explained to my students that we don’t just study that which comforts us. Instead, we need to look at what unsettles us and why. Much of my pedagogy rests on confronting students with things, topics, and people they find unseemly to show that history and religious studies is as much as about horror, violence, depravity, and harm as they are about anything else.  We can’t fix our world unless we confront what haunts and horrifies. Looking away doesn’t solve any problems.

I work on depressing topics; it is my niche, I guess.

It is terribly unsurprising, then, that I now write about sexism in academia for Chronicle Vitae. By pointing out gender bias (explicit and implicit) in higher education, I hoped I could do something to make the academy a kinder place for women.  I started this new project wondering how much data I would find about gender bias. Soon, I was overwhelmed by the evidence of bias against women. I ended up with a huge stack of articles, studies, and opinion pieces. Originally, I feared my column would run dry after six months. Now, I fear that it might never end: pay gaps, citation gaps, mommy bias, leaky pipeline, sexual harassment, rape, hazing and bullying, rescinded offers, contingent labor, enlightened sexism, implicit bias, and uneven mentoring and recommendation letters. The list could go on and on.

I didn’t realize the extent of the problem and its enormity. The portrait of women in academia appears bleak. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and sad. There is too much to cover. Too much to dwell on. Too much that makes me want to cry.

What I quickly learned is that researching and writing about sexism in higher ed hurts me.

Do Babies Matter?  proved to be my tipping point. It sort of broke me because I couldn’t read it without reflecting upon my stalled academic career. My life appeared in its pages. I became just another data point about how marriage and children impact the careers of women academics. Chapter after chapter, I became convinced that I was doomed from the start of graduate school without ever realizing it. I read and cried. I was sad, frustrated, and angry. This book was too much, so I had to put it down.

My visceral response startled me. I write about depressing topics all the time without too much mental anguish. My reaction to sexism should have been no different than my reaction to white supremacy, right? No topic ruffles me, or so I thought.

Yet, sexism in higher ed hits too close to home. I don’t have the luxury of distance from my topic. I see myself in every damn study, and it hurts. This research is like salt in a raw wound. It stings, burns, and irritates. Mostly, it forces me to think about some of my most unpleasant experiences in higher ed. I get to relive things I would rather forget every time I work on a column for Sexism Ed.  It makes me weary. I feel hopeless.

But, I can’t stop writing either. Column by column, I document sexism, misogyny, and gender bias in the academy because someone has to. I can’t stop writing. I just wish it hurt a little less.