Black Boy Trials: Killing Black Boys By the Court – #BLM Guest Post (Poetry)

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Art also welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

DeFINEd is a spoken word artist, author, and speaker from Dayton, Ohio. She is a first generation scholar, graduate of The OSU with a dual degree in Philosophy and Psychology as well as dual minors in Theatre and Africana Studies. Most recently, she attended and matriculated from The United Theological Seminary where she received her Masters of Divinity and has begun community workshops for Getting To Know Grief. DeFINEd has authored 3 books of poetry, Shhh…, There Are No Right Words, and Questions of Blackness. Her award winning poem “My Heroes” about little black boys as action figures was inspired by an art project which contrasted the plights of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin plus stories in between of black boys denied justice. 

My Heroes

by DeFINEd

~~

Little black boys

are da most valuable action figures-

where I come from

We run da fastest!

 (shooms)

 super speed!

We jump da highest, stand da tallest!!!

We are stronger den everybody

(uhhh uggh)!

We think da mostest!

We are da best at EVERYTHING!

Our death rates even da highest,

(slump, snore)

just playing, I still ‘live hehe.

Dey don’t make many models of us tho,

Momma say it cost too much

and white folk only see one color- green.

BUT dey make us life sized!

5’2 to 6’9

erybody fit dat description!

and since one skin tone has to represent all,

dey just make us da nigga hue.

Okay, dat don’t sound like much

but erywhere we go,

we get more den 1 look.

We are da coolest!!!!

I prove it!

I had dis one,

he had da purple and black jersey

he played basketball

and he was strong

he beat da hulk…

at one on one!

He was like crossover, crossover,

going right SYKE! going left

driving down the lane

MONKEY DUNKED ON DAT HULK!

Hulk a sore loser,

He tore up the court

but dat’s cuz he knew he wouldn’t score no way

HA

and der was dis one

he had all dese long gold chains

and da fast red car!

Mercedes benz vroom vroom!

He got all da barbies…yeah

I mean, I ‘ont play with barbies

my sister she told me

see she was always talking bout

she couldn’t never find one

so I gave her one of mine,

my momma said I had to share…

wait, where was I?

oh yea

Black boys, why we da bestest

They age us 12-20

well cuz most of us get recalled by 21

our shelf life not dat long

But if you’ve ever been

Black Boys ‘R Lynched

you know dat from the moment

was first manufac, minyfac

from the moment we was first made

we had targets on our back

That’s why we run so fast,

it’s our onliest hope

of escaping those that try to cell us.

We jump high and stand tall

well, because we rather be typecast than shot at.

And we are stronger den erybody

cuz dey beat us everyday

try to whip us into character,

when we say we not da same.

Scottsboro 9, Jena 6, Emmett Till

My cousins back at home,

Death immortalizes the young.

It takes courage to be one of us,

Little Black Boys don’t live too long.

We make da best action heroes tho,

everybody want one…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Black Boy Bullets

by DeFINEd

~~

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees” (Strange Fruit excerpt, Billie Holiday)

Black Boy Bullets

have replaced nooses made for niggers

no more strange fruit

hanging from poplar trees

Brass badges got farmer’s markets

That pop up in our streets

where blue black lives hold tight to triggers

squeeze out Black Boy Bullets for bebe guns

resurrect little boy blues

little boy little boy

BLACK BOY

when blue shoots

assume the position

hands up

back open

can’t breathe

inhale Black Boy Bullets

the new jim crow

the same sad tune

No more nooses hanging niggers

strange fruit stolen from poplar trees

brass badges profit off farmer’s markets

placed in walmarts

With just one phone call

Blue black trigger fingers

Dial home

Smile for the camera

Point and shoot

black boy bullets humming little boy blues

Momma

why can’t I

go out and play too?

Why sidewalks hold funerals

and swimming pools too?

Why you beat us

but we scare you?

Crying black boy bullets

assume the position

nooses made for niggers

backyards target practice

Blue lives pull the trigger

But black lives hold the gun

Only the guilty would run

Strange fruit stolen from poplar trees

To fund farmer’s markets with prison sheets

and trash bags

Ever since

Blue Black lives

Agreed to

donate their backs

To black boy bullets

cement body bags

6 by 8 cell burial plots

Farmer’s markets

Ran by

brass badges

no more strange fruit

on they poplar trees

Too many flies

They want us fresh

They want themselves alive

Crying blue lives matter too

This one fit the description

He had a history

Don’t shoot me

I’m just the messenger

I wasn’t on duty

NO INDICTMENT

I was doing my duty

NO INDICTMENT

I was standing my ground

NO INDICTMENT

They music was too goddamn loud

…no indictment

And they wonder

why we call it

a holding pattern

Context:

My Heroes and Black Boy Bullets are poems I wrote between 2014 and 2016 which speak to a question which has been hauntingly  articulated in 2020  but echoes throughout racism’s deep and pervasive history. When do I go from being cute to a threat?

From 2013 – 2014 I was finishing my final year of undergrad at Ohio State. In the year prior Trayvon Martin was murdered.[1] During my final year a Public Safety Notice went out from campus police describing a suspect as being a black male between the ages of 16 and 22 with variable heights as well.[2] In the midst of working on an art final I had requested to do which showcased the deaths of young boys like Emmett Till and Trayvonn Martin and the subsequent defamation of character after their murders, I wrote My Heroes. As I began listing the ages of the Scottsboro Boys, Jordan Davis, and a number of others for whom the judicial system had failed them, or worked as designed I should say, my despair grew.[3] The persecution of black males, black females, black trans people, black lgbtq+, of the black existence is an old and still very present epidemic, a truth some are just now accepting.

While I expressed this in my chalk rendering, I did so in my writing also.  I wrote this poem out of a place of deep exhaustion, anger, and frustration that my brothers, friends and strangers alike that I looked up to, could not walk our campus and classrooms which they paid and worked hard to attend without being accused of not belonging and fearing for their lives. I wrote it out of frustration and weariness of feeling the need to call my biological brother and suggest he not visit any time soon for his safety.

 “My Heroes” is a spoken word poem which lives in the tension of the collectible action figure, profitable within its box and label thus assigned and a threat outside of it. It is written in the voice of a young black child calling out the stereotypes of black boys admired and sought for their athletic attributes and prowess but feared and killed for it when white supremacy feels threatened and stands their ground. Their bodies must either be for sale or put in cells, otherwise their life is not valued.

Similarly, “Black Boy Bullets” written in the wake of John Crawford, Mike Brown, and Walter Scott reimagines the reality of lynching today previously captured in the Strange Fruit poem of Abel Meeropol and popularized by the soulful sounds of Billie Holiday.[4] Rather than the lynching characterized by nooses from trees, modern day lynchings are apparent in the wake of rampant police brutality which leaves our bodies in the streets for hours, and refuses to indict in the court months or years later. This reality is captured through the farmers market by brass badges, phrases I coined in this ode to black boy blues. I call them black boy blues because a bebe gun in the hand of black man in a Dayton area Walmart “justified” his murder in the same way a toy gun in the hands of a 12 year old in a Cleveland park “justified” his murder.[5]

Ultimately, the reality is we are not just now tired. We been tired, and some of us numb, even. Our accolades, suits and ties, degrees, respectability politics, none of it can protect us from a world offended by being asked to respect, at minimum, Black Lives Matter, These poems speak the victimization black boys and men, but I’ve also written about the violence enacted against black women and black girls as someone who sees herself in the tales of Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, and, most recently, Breonna Taylor; as someone who fears for her life at home and on the road.[6] Yet I question who will read and listen to the tales of black girls and black women, there rarely seems to be a right time to talk about us.


[1] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/florida-teen-trayvon-martin-is-shot-and-killed

[2] https://dps.osu.edu/2014-04

[3] https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/scottsboro-boys

[4] https://www.litcharts.com/poetry/abel-meeropol/strange-fruit

[5] https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/tamir-rice-and-americas-tragedy/amp

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/breonna-taylor-birthday-george-floyd-protests-louisville-a9551946.html

Translating an Uprising…. And Other Things That Are Not My Job – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

Leah N. Crowder is a doctoral candidate and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. In June 2020, she and Mimi Borders founded Black Grad Mentors to connect aspiring Black graduate students with scholars in their field. Leah teaches Introduction to Humanitarian Aid at The University of Arizona, where she is a Visiting Scholar of Human Rights Practice. Connect with Leah on Twitter or LinkedIn

Note from Leah: This post should not distract from ongoing work against police violence. For a fresh, reliable voice on the abolition movement and the roots of American policing, please follow @MsChelsea_J on Twitter.

I am one of two Black researchers in my department. But I’m light enough to pass. Not as white, but in that ambiguous way that shields me from the targeted comments you see in #BlackintheIvory

I don’t think my colleagues knew or thought about my background until I wrote a think piece on criminology’s race problem. After living through a brutally suppressed uprising in Turkey as an exchange student, I focused my research on the Middle East. Some acquaintances assumed my family was from the region. Most (rightfully) didn’t care. But, surprise! I’m *descendant of slaves and sick of this BS* Black. 

Passing in criminology means seeing how people discuss race-dependent issues when they aren’t pushed on questions of anti-Blackness. Four hours before I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder, I sat through two research presentations on how to increase trust and legitimacy in US policing. Race did not come up once. This was right after the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked nationwide calls to action.

I came up with a list of questions about participant demographics, the collective grief of police violence, police reliance on petty fines from predominantly Black communities, and the impact of mass incarceration on police-community relations. We ran out of time in the Q&A and none of these issues came up.

I do not research any of these issues. They are just part of life in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In a Zoom call full of professional policing, sentencing, and incarceration experts, nobody mentioned that race may be relevant in a conversation about police trust. I do not believe any individual on that call is actively racist. But the collective blind spot made it clear that my academic field reinforces institutional racism.

After I publicly stated my Blackness on the department blog, a few scholars and media outlets asked for my “expert opinion” on how to fix policing in the United States. I declined and referred them to longtime activists because I don’t represent all Black Americans and my work does not focus on US policing. Still, a few white academics replicated my arguments and spoke for the entirety of Black America. They were lauded as “insightful” and “brilliant”. 

Nothing in my piece was new or rooted in “expertise.” I repeated the same points we have been making since Black women launched #BlackLivesMatter in 2013. Since LAPD officers beat Rodney King in 1991. Since the NAACP took on Jim Crow in 1909. The people who live this reality are too often left out of the conversation. My cousin, who lived through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, explained the uprising better than I ever could. Nobody is asking for her expert opinion.

Last month, I was discussing Black liberation texts in an all white reading group. I argued that the revolution the authors discussed will not come from the academy. Instead, it will come from people who are tired of being spoken about and not having any institutional power. Just last month, this was a controversial opinion. Today, people around the world are rising up against the institutions that reinforce oppression, toppling monuments, and burning police precincts known for dehumanizing practices. In Oxford, England, 3,000 people showed up for the first of many Black Lives Matter protests and #RhodesMustFall is trending again. 

I am a palatable Black face that, until now, has just been grateful to have a seat at the table. But what is the point of sitting at a table built on the exploited trauma of marginalized communities?  Where everyone who got there, myself included, translated human suffering into career progression? Where “giving back” means sending research participants a book copy but doing nothing to address the issues we write about? 

At this point, I will probably never have a Black professor. But I have worked with a long list of scholar-activist mentors who encouraged me to translate my anger into both academic work and advocacy. If you want to be that person but you’re not sure how, please read the list of action items I’ve included below.

How non-Black academics can make the ivory tower a little more welcoming: 

  1. Continually open discussions and listen to Black students and faculty before grievances become a collective list of demands. 
  2. Don’t assume that Black students would be better off with mentors who look like them. It is not fair to expect the few Black faculty members to do the unpaid labor of supporting every Black student who comes through the university. 
  3. If students have questions about race in academia that you just can’t answer, refer them to @blkgradmentors for a free one hour discussion. Please try to offer general support first.
  4. Center Black works and embrace messy discussions about race. Saying the wrong thing can be embarrassing but silence leaves a deeper impact.
  5. Support your colleagues if they get reported for discussing race in class. This happens frequently and most department heads just tell them to apologize.
  6. Don’t expect Black students and faculty to be experts on all race-dependent issues. Many of us welcome respectful requests for personal reflections, but a quick google search will get you the statistics you’re looking for.
  7. If you have ever used the word “oppression” in your research, help dismantle the structures you study. Not as an academic. As a person. 

Special thanks to Prof. Mary Bosworth, Prof. Maha Nassar, Prof. Maggy Zanger, and Prof. Julia Clancy-Smith for encouraging me through obstacles. They are what inclusive mentorship should look like. 

______________________________

How Sociology (Re)Produces Racist Policing – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

By Amber Hamilton. Amber M. Hamilton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research examines digital articulations of Black identity and the broader relationship between race and technology.

On Friday, June 5 between 10:15am-10:26am, I posted the following 7-tweet thread on Twitter (I am using an unrolled version of this thread provided by the Thread Reader App): 

“Two of the police officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd were previously students in the Sociology dept. at the University of Minnesota.

Yesterday, my dept. sent the grad students an email requesting we stay silent if contacted by media. Y’all. (1/n)

~~

My fellow grad students have issued excellent email responses to that request calling it out for what it is: an attempt to cover-up something that is politically unfashionable in this moment. 2/n

~~

Our dept has a Law, Crime, and Deviance track that is actively marketed to students as a path to law enforcement. So this dept. is actively recruiting and training folks who go on to join the MPD and other law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and beyond.

~~

If you actively market your courses to folks who want to be in law enforcement, you have to accept the consequences down the line. When those officers kill/abuse/main citizens, you can’t shy away from your role in that 4/n

~~

Several of my grad school colleagues have realized that they were instructors/TAs for the two officers and are sick about it. But this is what it is. The Soc dept. has to stand in this and choose a path forward. 5/n

~~

Either they can continue to actively market the LCD major as a path toward law enforcement or they can choose to divest from that practice. But what they can’t do is request my complicity and silence about their failures 6/n.

~~

Last thing: this thread is going to burn bridges for me and I’m probably going to get emails about it. That’s just what it is. But I’m not going to stay silent about Black deaths and white complicity.”

~~

Sitting in my apartment, writing this thread on Friday, I did not expect my words to travel as far and as widely as they have. However, as of this writing on Sunday, June 7th at 9am, the first tweet in this thread 19,000 retweets and 55,000 likes. So, in writing this blog post, I hope to offer clarity on my words and suggestions on how to move forward. 

I posted this thread in response to a June 4 email from the chair of my department that was sent to the University of Minnesota Sociology graduate student listserv. In this email, the chair informed us that J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, two of the officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd, “appear to have ties to our department, college, and university.” 

The email also asked that we direct any media inquiries regarding current or past students to an official in the College of Liberal Arts. 

Many of my graduate school friends and colleagues responded with outrage, demanding that instead of shielding ourselves from the media, that we ought to use this moment to critically reflect on our practices of actively marketing our LCD program toward aspiring law enforcement and inviting cops into our classrooms.

Moreover, this message was read as an attempt to silence graduate students, making them avoid speaking with the media out of a fear of associating the department with a high-profile incident of anti-Black police violence. 

After reading these brilliant and thoughtful emails from my colleagues (and watching those emails receive no response from departmental administration), I felt sad, frustrated, angry, and hurt. So, I decided to use my platform on Twitter to spark a public conversation about my department’s practices regarding the undergraduate curriculum. Though I knew my tweets would receive attention, I admit that I was naive to just how much attention my thread would attract. But, I’m glad that I started a necessary and difficult conversation about my discipline’s dirty secret. 

Many Sociology and/or Criminology departments across this country actively market their majors and courses toward aspiring law enforcement officers and/or actively invite current law enforcement officers to their classrooms. While my thread specifically calls out University of Minnesota Sociology, the same is true of many other departments. These practices work to uphold an anti-Black, racist institution in order to reap the benefits that tuition dollars provide. In this moment of profound upheaval about race and policing in the United States and beyond, we — sociologists and academics writ large—have to interrogate our own complicity in upholding white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and systemic racism. 

I believe that the path forward for my department (and others) begins with putting an immediate end to the active recruitment of and marketing to aspiring law enforcement officers. Obviously, departments have no power to bar these students from their courses. But departments do have the power to shift how and to whom their courses are targeted. The path forward also includes putting an immediate stop to the inviting of current police and other law enforcement officers to classrooms to speak about their careers. Along with providing law enforcement officers a platform to spread state propaganda, inviting officers into classrooms is also a violent act against Black and Brown students. 

To be clear, I do not believe that the Law, Crime, and Deviance major should be eliminated. I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with many brilliant students in this major who are interested in careers that work to dismantle the racist criminal legal system. I am only suggesting an end to the practice of actively marketing the major toward aspiring law enforcement officers.

I am not an activist nor am I an expert in policing or the criminal justice system. However, many of my colleagues in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota are. In fact, my department is well-known for its research foci in various aspects of the criminal legal system. As such, we know better. We know what recruiting aspiring law enforcement officers into our undergraduate programs means and the potential consequences of that practice. However, we have thus far elided that responsibility and have continued to engage in practices that uphold anti-Black racism and systemic injustice. 

On May 27, 2020, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced that the University will cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. As such, continued advertisement of courses as a path toward law enforcement and inviting law enforcement officers to our classroom represents a hypocritical disjuncture between the University’s stated policies and the practices of the Department of Sociology.

It is my sincere hope that department administration and the faculty will immediately work to rectify this division.

URGENT: Strike4BlackLives Call To Action – June 10

Please participate in the Strike4BlackLives. Please share it widely with your circles. The strike has been called by scholars in the Physics community for Wed. June 10.

#Strike4BlackLives is in dialogue with a call from colleagues in Astronomy to #shutdownSTEM and #shutdownacademia for at least the day of June 10.

Find out more by following the hashtags #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM.

Follow Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (@Ibjiyongi) on Twitter for up to the minute content.

Below is what you need to know about this day of action.

The call is to stop all usual academic work for [AT LEAST] the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities. All ordinary meetings of classes, research groups, and seminars should be cancelled or replaced with discussions with colleagues about anti-black bias in the world and in academia.

Please be aware: the strike is a DAY OF REST FOR BLACK ACADEMICS.

“Therefore, as physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities.”

What does that mean? It means, in NOTHING that you organize or do on June 10 to address racism in the academy, do you require any labor or involvement by Black academics. Black academics are both exhausted and traumatized right now. The point of the strike is for non-Black academics to show up, speak up, and start to look at ourselves and our institutions for the ways they continue to manifest anti-Black racism, exclusions, silencing, retaliations, and more. And folks: a book group, seminar, talk, or other academic business-as-usual really, really does not cut it. We are in a national and international moment of crisis. Show up. Be uncomfortable. Do more. Do different. Feel anxious. Take risks. To quote some words from below: “we are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars. We are not asking people to sit through another training about implicit bias. We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived — to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives.”

What follows comes from the official language of the strike. For additional info read widely on the site. Here is the FAQ page. The list of core organizers is below.

#Strike4BlackLives CALL TO ACTION:

It should go without saying that Black lives matter. Yet we find ourselves again mourning and raging over state and vigilante violence against Black people. The recent murders of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery are just a few examples of the violence and racism that Black people live with every day — and have for centuries — in the US, Canada, and around the world. We acknowledge the ways in which the effects of anti-Black racism are compounded for people who are also, for example, women, trans, non-binary, queer, Indigenous to the lands occupied by the United States and Canada, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, and/or undocumented. We demand justice, reform, and accountability now.

Therefore, as physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities. This #strike4blacklives is in dialogue with a call from colleagues in astronomy to #shutdownSTEM and #shutdownacademia for at least the day of June 10.

We recognize that our academic institutions and research collaborations — despite big talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion — have ultimately failed Black people. Demands for justice have been met with gradualism and tokenism, as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives that — while sometimes well-intentioned — have had little meaningful impact on the lived experiences of Black students, staff, researchers, and faculty. Black representation among physics faculty is non-existent at most institutions, and it is widely known that Black students often feel unwelcome, unsupported, and even unsafe in their physics departments and predominantly white campuses.

Anti-Blackness is pervasive throughout academia, and the number of students and faculty in particle physics and other subfields make this very clear. Moreover, anti-Blackness affects all aspects of Black peoples’ lives. To steward a new generation of students, research staff, and faculty in physics means to acknowledge our collective responsibility to combat anti-Blackness, not just on campus, but also in the streets, in governance, and society at large. Ending white supremacy is a matter of urgency, yet far too often, instead of using power to question institutional practices and advocate for Black students, faculty and staff, many senior academics and administrators retreat to the Ivory Tower, disengaging from the pursuit of justice. Again, the fight against white supremacy — in all of its manifestations — is an urgent one, and we are clear that justice will not be achieved until Black people not only have the right to survive but also thrive.

We are conscious of the ways in which Black students and scholars, including two authors of this letter to the community, are expected to do the heavy lifting to advocate for and support justice and representation in academia. We know that this burden functions as an unfair and unevenly distributed barrier to their ability to thrive in academia. We call for a universal strike to give them a break and because those of us with the most privilege have the greatest responsibility to use that privilege to enact change. We must confront the institutional barriers to justice for Black people in academia and beyond, challenge the notion of the meritocracy whereby “objective and neutral” criteria infused with systemic racism are used to exclude Black people from physics and other academic disciplines, and rebuild our institutions and collaborations in a way that is just and equitable.

Importantly, we are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars. We are not asking people to sit through another training about implicit bias. We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived — to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives. In calling for a strike, we call on people who are not Black to spend a day undertaking discussion and action that furthers this work, while providing Black scientists with a day of rest. Every single institution around the world can and should get involved in this work, and the strike marks an opportunity to recommit to the humanist values which should underpin academic work, including the belief that Black Lives Matter.

What does the strike encompass?

We will stop all usual academic work for the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities. All ordinary meetings of classes, research groups, and seminars should be cancelled or replaced with discussions with colleagues about anti-black bias in the world and in academia.

We will also stop activities that advance our own scholarship, including performing research, reading and submitting papers, or sending e-mails about research.

The strike is not a “day off” for non-Black scientists, but a day to engage in academia’s core mission to build a better society for everyone; see below for suggested actions that participants can take on strike day to educate themselves and advocate for change in their communities. Those of us who are Black academics should take the day to do whatever nourishes their hearts, whether that’s protesting, organizing, or watching “Astronomy Club.”

When does the strike happen?

It will take place all day, Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

What does it mean to take action to further the cause of ending global anti-Blackness?

Our usual academic responsibilities will be replaced by actions that center Black lives and agitate for change in our communities. Example actions include, but are not limited to:

  • Participate in a protest. If there are none local to you, organize one. Any number of people can form a protest together.
  • Educate ourselves about the history of anti-Black violence, police brutality, and racism. Pay particular attention to how intersecting identities such as gender and gender identity, religion, nationality and immigration status, sexual orientation, amplify the injustices faced by Black individuals.
  • Repurpose scheduled meetings and seminar times to discuss specific actions you will take to have an impact locally. Focus on concrete actions you can take now. Consider impact beyond academic spaces.
  • If you spend part of your day engaging with entertainment, immerse yourself in the work of Black artists: literature, poetry, visual art, film, music.
  • Contact your local elected representatives and other public officials (for example, police chiefs) about issues affecting Black lives. If you live in the US, you can find your local member of the House of Representatives at this link. For a more comprehensive list of federal, state, and local officials, you can use directories like that provided by Common Cause.
  • Make an action plan for how you will respond to anti-Black police brutality and other racism that you see on the streets, at work, and in your social circles. This could include thinking through whether and how you will intervene, what you will say, etc.
  • Contact your institution’s leadership to advocate for policies that support and protect Black students, staff and faculty. This includes reforming campus security procedures that target Black students and their friends & families, and institutional barriers to the hiring and promotion of Black scholars.
  • Examine and take responsibility for the relationships that universities have entered into with local law enforcement, with the explicit intention of building trusting relationships with the campus communities and neighboring, non-campus communities most affected by these relationships. Learn how to support groups opposing the relationships between universities and police forces.
  • Donate –at least a day’s worth of salary if you are in a position to do so– to the advancement of justice for Black people. We have included a list of organizations at the end of this site.
  • If you are in a position of power, acknowledge the situation the US is in right now and extend deadlines for your Black students, employees, grantees, trainees, etc. and anyone doing time-consuming support work for the movement for Black lives.

Who should strike?

While our call is from our position as particle physicists and cosmologists, we welcome everyone in academia to join us! We encourage institutions to publicize and support their students, faculty, and staff to join the strike. If you have a labor contract that precludes engaging in strike activities, we encourage you to donate one of your vacation days to this important day.

As researchers, teachers, students, and staff we devote an immense amount of our time and mental energy to learning more about the world and ourselves within the framework of our own discipline. The strike day gives us the space and time to center Black lives, show solidarity with academics with marginalized ascribed identities, to educate ourselves about the ways in which we and our institutions are complicit in anti-Black racism, and to take concrete action for change.

~~~~~~

Authors

Foregrounding our Black members who developed this idea, and then in alphabetical order

Brian Nord (Fermilab and University of Chicago) (click here for a personal statement)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (University of New Hampshire)

Matthew Buckley (Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey)

Kyle Cranmer (New York University)

Djuna Croon (TRIUMF)

Daniel Harlow (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Seyda Ipek (University of California, Irvine)

Sam McDermott (Fermilab)

Matthew Reece (Harvard University)

Nausheen Shah (Wayne State University)

Brian Shuve (Harvey Mudd College)

Tracy Slatyer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Tim M.P. Tait (University of California, Irvine)

Graham White (TRIUMF)

Tien-Tien Yu (University of Oregon)

Executive Function and Mental Load – Guest Post

Today’s post is by our marvelous and insightful postac coach, Dr. Maggie Gover. This is not a postac post per se, but I want you to know more about her in case this speaks to you and you’d like to schedule a consult with her. Learn more about that here.

If you want to see how I’m coping in the almost total absence of reasonable Executive Function, see yesterday’s post, “Come On, Karen, FOCUS.”

Dr. Maggie Gover’s career is dedicated to helping students successfully complete their graduate degrees and then transition into successful professional lives.  As such, she has quite a bit of experience helping students identify industries in which they may be successful and describing their graduate careers in ways that might be attractive to those industries.  While she is most knowledgeable in alternative academic jobs, she has helped students transition into private industry, government, and non-profit jobs as well.  Maggie’s service to students began when she was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California where she served as an intern in the Office of Admissions.  While she was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Oxford she served as a Junior Dean at St. Hilda’s College.  When she was a PhD candidate at UC Riverside she was the Coordinator for Academic Preparation and Outreach and then the Graduate Student Mentorship Program Coordinator, and later the Director of Graduate Student Professional and Academic Development. While she is now primarily an administrator, she is still researching and publishing in theories of new media and 19th C visual sciences.Maggie’s Consulting Philosophy: I am a strong supporter of graduate education and think that society benefits from having those incredibly creative and analytic minds in diverse industries.  I want to help students find careers that are satisfying to them and in which they will excel.  Remember that no career search is easy!  It will take hard work, knowledge, dedication, and perseverance.  However, the great joy of working with graduate students is that they have dedication and perseverance in spades!  You bring that to the table, and I can help with the knowledge.

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Are you finding that things take you longer right now? Do you have to read something a few times before you fully understand what it says? Is your motivation tanking? You are not alone. 

In the best of times, working as an academic means that you are exercising a very high level of executive function skill. It is common for people to feel a bit spacey in other aspects of their lives while they are devoting such high executive function to one area. That means you might notice that it takes longer to do other things when you are particularly entrenched in your research.

Executive functions refers to “higher level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors” (https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/executive-functions). They include the ability to organize information, prioritize and sequence tasks, perform abstract thinking, regulate emotional responses, and a host of other higher order skills. 

Right now, we have the added challenge of social distancing and coronavirus taking up space in our brains. Things like planning the day’s activities (for ourselves and our dependents), determining how to obtain food and supplies, converting lesson plans to an emergency remote teaching environment, and worrying about the illness itself are all taking very valuable space in our brains. 

Why does the strained mental load make everything more difficult? Think about your brain like your desk and every task that you attempt is a notebook open on that desk. When the desk is clear, you can easily pull out a notebook and start writing in it. When there are five notebooks out, you might take an extra moment to look through each one before figuring out which one you need. When there 100 on the desk, it will take you a while to find the one that you need and you will likely have to balance it on top of other open notebooks to begin taking more notes. So, with every added task, the entire load becomes more cumbersome.

When I think about all of the “notebooks” I am balancing on my mental desk, it becomes evident why every task is taking so much longer than usual. My brain is trying to remember moment-by-moment modifications to stay-at-home orders, the mom’s group post that told me which grocery store finally has a needed item in stock, the meals I have in the pantry for the next week, the five craft ideas for my preschooler I saw on pinterest, the baby’s napping schedule, are we supposed to be wiping down the mail now or not?, the number of minutes of physical activity my kids have gotten and creative ways for them to get more in the confines of our apartment… all while feeding the family three reasonably healthy meals a day and constantly cleaning up. If you make your list, I am betting you will see that you are using a herculean amount of brain power. 

Hopefully understanding this can help you give yourself some leeway. But, how do we move through this to stay as productive as possible? Here are some tips and tricks you may want to try, if you haven’t already:

1. Keep a notebook or task list handy so that you can write down things as you think of them. This might be reminders to yourself, grocery lists, to dos, etc. If you aren’t trying to remember lots of diverse things, you might be able to concentrate more fully on the task at hand. Then, dedicate a few minutes each day to organizing those notes so that nothing gets missed.

2.  If you don’t have one, try to initiate a daily mediation, yoga, guided breathing, or mindfulness practice while we are in the midst of coronavirus. Allowing yourself time to clear your mind and focus on nothing is like putting all the notebooks away and starting with a fresh desk. If these methods don’t work for you, maybe try taking a daily walk in nature (if that is available to you) or even listening to some of your favorite, relaxing music. 

3. Transition time is a concept that deserves its own post, but I want to touch briefly on it here. Transitioning from one type of work to another requires your brain to perform some mental agility. Just like you wouldn’t go from sitting on the couch to running a 100 meter dash without warming up and stretching in between, you probably won’t be able to move from performing a close reading of an esoteric work to grading an exam or crafting with your four-year-old without some transition. If you do, you may find the second task, the one without an adequate warm up, suffers. For me, I find myself a bit snappier (lacking emotional regulation) if I transition too quickly between disparate tasks. So, recognize the need for precious moments or seconds in between tasks to regroup. 

4. Look into your past and determine what motivated you before. Try to implement those motivational measures now. So, for example, I find that I always have a burst of increased intellectual activity after I speak with one of my collaborators. I try to speak with her once a week and I try to schedule it for a time when my husband will be able to watch the kids after so that I can get some writing done. 

I hope these are helpful. What are other ways you have found to help stay productive? 

I wish you health and contentedness during this challenging time. Cheers!

“Come On, Karen, FOCUS”

Today I talk about Executive Function why we don’t have any.

Turns out, when our brains are entirely consumed with basic security and survival work (as Dr. Aisha Ahmad explained in her excellent guest post last month), there just isn’t much brainpower left for anything else.

Case in point, I actually marched around the house practically in tears for 10 minutes just trying to find my phone to make the damned video, and ultimately had to resort to the indignity of Find My Iphone on icloud. Except that I couldn’t remember the password to my Icloud and had to endure the abject misery of trying to dig that up out of my unhappy brain (And naturally my phone was right next to me on the sofa where I now live my life, buried in the blanket).

And while making the video I forgot to mention that my biggest stressor right now is that my 19 year old son traveled cross country to Vermont yesterday and today, for a summer internship with low income kids through Americorps. The internship is of course online but they wanted the program leaders in town for things like deliveries and so on. I’ve been an utter wreck as he first, makes his away through pandemic hotspots (Boston) to get there, and then…. is on the other side of the country from me in a pandemic.

None of this is even remotely normal, and our brains just don’t work. And that’s ok.

Adding: I think it’s worth becoming more aware of our cues of Executive Function Overwhelm. For me:

  • Irritability, first and foremost, over the smallest things
  • Fatigue
  • Negativity
  • Uptick in self-criticism

What are your symptoms?

Stay tuned for our guest post on Executive Function coming up tomorrow.

New makeup:

Stellar Limitless Foundation in S04 – my new obsession–this foundation is literally like a second skin, so light, so satin, so perfect. This color is my color. Took two tries to find it.

Urban Decay Lo-Fi Mousse in Echo (because I loved my one in Amplify so much)

NARS Contour Blush in Paloma – this was a cast-off of my daughter’s and is too red for me, but the product quality is incredible (the first contour product that, if I get the right cool tone – eg “Talia” – might possibly get me away from my Kevin Aucoin) and the highlighter that comes with it is so creamy, brightening, and non-creasing under the eye that it blew away all my other powder products that I’ve spent the last year trying to perfect. Which is good, but also a bit aggravating, tbh. Why did i spend all that money?

Productivity: Work less. Listen More.

Let me start by saying this will take a bit to unpack. It took a week’s worth of writing sessions (three times a day, so 15 sessions!) to sort it out.

Where to start?

My thinking…

Last week, I was discussing healthy eating habits with someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder. We were talking about a concept called intuitive eating, listening to your body to learn how to respond to its needs rather than to your mind, which has absorbed all sorts of unhealthy messages.

I wondered aloud, “How, if you never learned healthy eating patterns, can you trust your intuition?”

The consensus: It requires a lot of compassionate exploration, self observation and, of course, crying while lying on the kitchen floor. 

Side note: You might not want to hear this, but I often find that programs related to recovery from toxic and/or unhealthy patterns are relevant to writing and academia. Toxic relationships are toxic relationships after all. #Awkward

I went straight from the overeating conversation to one of my Unstuck Writing in the Pandemic sessions, which incorporate short bursts of work with coaching on the obstacles and challenges raised by the day’s participants.

For this particular session, I asked participants to ponder this question: “How do you know when you have overworked?” Understanding that just like the question of overeating, overworking requires SIGNIFICANT excavation of often deeply buried thoughts and motivations.

Now, I do this kind of coaching in every single session. And whether the topic is perfectionism or imposter syndrome or boundaries or anything else common to academia, participants are QUICK to jump in. There is always lively discussion.

But…. When I asked about overwork, the silence was deafening.

It was so quiet that I could almost hear the screams inside each participant’s brain: STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS! I HAVE WORK TO DO!

It was quite a thing. And when they finally started talking, they shared how hard it was for them to even recognize overwork as something they were doing at all, let alone recognize its symptoms.

What we finally got to as a group was a list of physical, emotional and psychological symptoms that clued participants into over work. These included: headache, crabbiness, inability to concentrate, agitation.

I left them with homework: Define overwork in their own lives.

So if you are resisting even considering the question, rest assured you that you are not alone.

The same day, totally unrelated, I was reading about how when we repeatedly set a goal or deadline and miss it, we lose touch with ourselves.

In Unstuck, I talk a lot about how when we say we are going to do something and don’t do it, we lose internal integrity. We don’t trust ourselves. 

This language is a small shift from not trusting ourselves to losing touch with ourselves. 

Somehow for me that shift in language releases a bit of judgment that might be associated with the “trust” phrasing, and opens up space for compassionate curiosity. Rather than “I don’t trust myself” the engagement moves to “Who am I in relation to deadlines and boundaries?”

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t make missing a goal feel any better, but it can make facing it less punishing. Rather than saying to ourselves “You failed! Now I don’t trust you!” we can be compassionate and curious. “Hey, I lost you. Where are you?”

Cue the second meeting of the day. Different group, same set up. This time I prefaced my question(s) about overwork with an observation.

“Today we are going to start to look at overwork. The goal is to work our way back to where we pushed past our limits. We can’t learn to set a boundary we won’t blow past without knowing our healthy limit.”

BUT, right now that line is so buried under the detritus of blown boundaries that there is no finding it without measured excavation.

So, here is the first question: How do you know you have overworked?”

Again, to a person, the indicator was physical, mental or emotional.

Next question: “Do you know when the overwork started?”

Silence. 

“Let’s modify that question: What are some of the sentences you have heard in your head when you didn’t want to work?”

The answers” “This is too much.” “I can’t handle this.” “I am soooooo tired.” “I need a freaking break!”

(You will notice these are not the same as the voices that tell you that you don’t know enough or are not up to the task. That’s a whole other topic!)

The interaction showed me that THIS is the place to begin excavating. Way back when you told yourself, this is too much, but your solution was to push through. The ignored “complaints” may be the best marker, even before the physical or emotional symptoms.

Third group of the day. Same set up. Except after they shared their symptoms, I added this:

“Here’s the thing. Those physical symptoms are outcomes —  headache, crabiness, agitation — of ignoring an earlier warning. Think of it like your car. You don’t just end up broken down on the side of the road. You ignored the indicator light for how many weeks before that happened?  So, the indicator light is the little voice that said, “I’m so tired.” “I need a break.” “This is just too much.”  Listen to it before you’re broken down.

As you think about what your indicator light is, you can begin to excavate the line where you push yourself past healthy. 

As you become familiar with that line again (In other words, begin to recognize the self you lost contact with), ponder the question I posed to the next group: Where can youI work less?

And if reading that made you guffaw at the ridiculousness of the question, you are, again, not alone. 

And, I am not joking.

The solution to overwork is to work less. 

And because we both know that simply working less is unlikely, try engaging these three questions as you are able:

  1. How do I know I have overworked?
  2. Where is the first indication that I am pushing past my limits?
  3. When I get that first indication of overwork, where could I choose to work less?

I didn’t expect them — nor do I expect you — to be able to answer these questions immediately. For everyone who chronically overworks, the answers are buried under years of allowing outside circumstances to overwrite our intuition. Academia is literally built on this impulse. Like intuitive eating, discovering what is healthy work for you requires a lot of compassionate exploration, self observation and, of course, crying while lying on the office floor.

Two final notes:

  1. Doing this work does not mean you will never overwork or that there won’t be times that you push past the limits for a short period of time. Like all things Unstuck, the insight is not about NEVER DOING IT WRONG AGAIN; it is about reclaiming agency and choosing rather than being shoved around by unexamined external demands.
  2. For many of you it is easy to dismiss the idea of overwork because you have had (or are in the midst of) periods of not working at all. Instead you are writhing in shame, THINKING about work, or more precisely beating yourself up for not working. This is actually no different than overwork in its impact on your system. I encourage you to ask the same questions, but this time, about the shame around not working or not working “enough.”

I welcome your observations and insights.

Effectively Asking for Feedback

This post originally appeared on Up In Consulting. It is re-posted with permission.

Dr. Jane Jones
Up In Consulting

Do you struggle with asking for feedback on your writing from your peers and mentors? Writers often seek my support for developmental editing because they’re scared to ask for feedback from scholars in their field. In my conversations with clients, I’ve discovered there are four reasons writers hesitate in asking for feedback. 

In this post, I outline those four reasons. Then, I provide some tips on how you can change your mindset and approach when asking for feedback. I hope that once you read this advice, you’ll feel empowered rather than intimidated when asking for feedback. 

I don’t want to be a bother.

You might believe that you’re being bothersome or annoying by asking for feedback. Most scholars are incredibly busy, and you’re being considerate by acknowledging that. Even so, rigorous scholarship can only be created through an iterative process of feedback and revision.  I think a lot of graduate students and junior faculty hear the (legitimate) complaints scholars have about the peer-review process and internalize them. They believe that asking for feedback is somehow exploitative or intrusive. You, my dear friend, are not a publishing company generating millions of dollars of revenue off the uncompensated labor of academics. You’re not the reason academics are overworked. 

Stop making assumptions about how other people want to spend their time. Whenever writers I work with express doubt about asking for feedback, I ask them how they’d respond to a request for feedback. Most say they’d be happy to give feedback, and share instances when they have. I’m sure you’ve also provided feedback to colleagues, friends, and mentees. If so, why do you assume that you have more free time than your peers? Do you think your peers are less generous than you? 

There’s an entire conversation to be had about cultural and social capital in academia. Here, I’ll just say that fear of being bothersome is most pronounced among members of marginalized groups.  Almost all of my clients are women, the majority being women of color. They reject the mere suggestion that they might deserve feedback on their work. If you share this belief, listen to me: Steve down the hall is asking for feedback because he believes he’s entitled to it. You should ask too. 

The feedback won’t be constructive.

Some writers object to asking for feedback because they’re worried the feedback won’t be helpful. They’re fearful it will be a waste of their time to wait for feedback that ultimately won’t make a difference. Feedback becomes a risk they’re not willing to take.

If you share this objection, consider this: you control who you ask. If you’re asking scholars you respect, why wouldn’t the feedback be constructive? You’re not actively searching for the worst version of Reviewer 2 to tear your manuscript to shreds, or tell you to explore avenues that are beyond the scope of your research, are you? 

If you have either or both of the two objections I describe above, think of it this way: If you’re a kind, generous scholar then I’m going to guess that you have some friends who are also kind, generous scholars. If you’re a jerk who consistently refuses to read your peers’ work but on the rare occasions that you do, you’re unnecessarily cruel well… good luck getting feedback.  

They’ll tell me my writing is terrible. 

You’re thinking to yourself, “who would want to read this sh*t.” You’re worried that once someone reads your work, you’ll be exposed as a fraud or impostor. Instead of sharing your work, you keep it hidden. You rarely submit for conferences. Publishing seems like an impossible feat because you can’t even imagine a friend commenting on your writing. 

If your writing is indeed “terrible,” then you likely need help improving it. That’s the purpose of asking for feedback. This is also why it’s so important to cultivate a community of sympathetic, supportive peers, colleagues, and mentors to read your work — or to work with an editor. These are the readers who will give you objective feedback without being cruel. Some of it might be tough to read, but it won’t be unnecessarily mean. 

I want to wait until it’s more polished. 

Again, the point of feedback is to improve your work. This is really just an excuse to hold onto your work for longer than necessary. If your work is complete, there’s no reason to seek feedback. There’s really no point at which you’ll look at your work and definitively say, “this is the best moment to ask for feedback.” That’s because most of us don’t write in a linear fashion. For instance, you might have a really strong discussion section but an introduction that still needs improvement. Our drafts are uneven because they’re drafts

If your draft is uneven, give your reader some guidance on where to focus their attention. It’s reasonable to tell your reviewer, “I think the discussion section is strong (so feel free to skim there), but I think the introduction has X, Y, and Z weaknesses. I’d really appreciate your feedback there.” If you don’t know the weaknesses but feel that something’s off, just say, “I’ve hit a wall here and would appreciate any guidance you can provide.” As long as you lead with gratitude rather than bossiness, it’s OK to be specific in your request. 

This type of targeted request has two clear benefits. First, it saves your reader time (so you’re less of a bother!). You’re telling them where to focus their energies so they can get right to work. Busy people appreciate this. Second, it gives you a better chance of receiving useful feedback (alleviating your fear that the feedback will be unhelpful). 

All of the objections I’ve discussed are completely normal. You’ve likely had one or all of them yourself. Putting your work out for critique is scary. The important action for you to take is to acknowledge the fear and share your work anyway. That’s the only way to teach your brain that you’re capable of doing scary things. So go and share! 

Katrina and Rona – WOC Guest Post

For the past two years Wednesdays have been dedicated to guest posts by women of color, particularly black women. One of our company missions is to elevate and promote the voices of black women in the academy. Recently, our well of posts ran dry! I put out a call, and am pleased to have received this contribution by Professor Donna A. Patterson.

I continue to seek posts for next week and beyond. If you are a black woman, PLEASE do get in touch with drafts of guests posts or pitches/ideas on ANY aspect of your life loosely related to the academy. Posts can be angry, raw, and candid, and can encompass racism, marginalization, mental health struggles, new pandemic realities, uplifting stories, tactics that work, and/or advice on your favorite technology, apps, teaching techniques, fashion and makeup. If you’re unsure, just ask me! Email me at gettenure@gmail.com. Currently I pay $100 for accepted posts.

Professor Donna Patterson is a department chair and professor at Delaware State University. She writes and teaches history and global health, including on Ebola and other epidemics. She visited West Africa during the 2014–2016 epidemic but this is her first time living through one.

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When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I was working in the city at Dillard University. On August 28, 2005—the morning before Katrina made landfall—I evacuated to Houston. I left at daybreak and 16 exhausting hours later, I finally made it to Houston.

To me, hurricanes were mundane. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Hurricane Katrina was different—though all of the elements of a hurricane were there. Katrina taught me new things that I never could have imagined learning. 

On the morning of August 29, 2005, I was peeled to news reports. The storm had weakened from a category 5 and made landfall at a category 3. We were lucky, so we thought. 

Things still seemed normal in New Orleans on the morning of August 29th—until the levees broke. But after the levees broke, New Orleans would never be the same. The broken levees caused insurmountable damage and the effects are still being felt in a myriad of ways in greater New Orleans. Much of the city flooded and whole neighborhoods sat under water for weeks. At the same time, other parts of the city were relatively dry with only varied amounts of wind damage. 

Somehow, within two weeks after the storm hit, I was able to visit the city. 

I could only access parts of the city, but the damage I saw was devastating. The worst thing, though, was the smell—the smell that everyone described. It was an almost indescribable smell of death: the death of people who drowned in their homes. It was also the smell of pets and other animal corpses that were trapped in homes or lying on the ground. The smell was mixed with smells of destruction—of property, of places, of things. What you couldn’t smell were the broken lives, the broken dreams, the lost artifacts, the lost family heirlooms, the waterlogged photo albums, and the damaged artwork. What you couldn’t smell was the mental anguish of a city and its inhabitants, who were left with memories of a lost world: the city that existed before the storm.

I was one of the lucky ones. Though I was physically displaced for almost a year after the storm, I still had a home in New Orleans, albeit one with some damage. I left New Orleans in the weeks after Katrina struck for a one-year fellowship at Princeton University. Living in Princeton, N.J., was a port in the proverbial storm. Everything there was seemingly normal. Everything functioned—stores were open and plentiful, banks were in buildings rather than temporary trailers, mail service was consistent, and the looming memory of death and destruction wasn’t omnipresent. Some of my colleagues from Dillard and elsewhere were impressed that I had landed at an Ivy League university during that difficult time and assumed that I would be productive, researching and writing all sorts of things. Instead I spent much of the year looking for a job. Dillard University sent many of us our last paycheck weeks after Katrina hit. I also grappled with the sheer trauma of my displacement, the displacement of friends and coworkers, the loss of life and housing, and the uncertainty of the present and future of New Orleans. This made it difficult to focus: to write and to produce. 

Just as I felt fortunate to be at Princeton in 2005–2006, I am lucky to be living amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. I now work in Delaware as a department chairperson and professor and I have the privilege of being able to work remotely. So many workers don’t have this privilege. Many of us in academia have been privileged to work remotely during the early months of this crisis. As we all know, health care workers are working tirelessly through this pandemic with great risk to their personal health, given the current lack of protective gear. Cashiers, delivery personnel, postal workers, restaurant cooks, childcare workers, gas station attendants and others are also working with the public. They don’t have the luxury of working remotely if they want to keep a job and job-sponsored health care insurance. Some of them work to the detriment of their own personal health security and that of their families. 

Having lived through the aftermath of Katrina, I find it somewhat easier to work during this crisis. However, there are also periods of great difficulty given the sheer gravity of the loss of life, the slow response, and the lingering public health threat. Furthermore, I see what is happened in Louisiana—where the Mardi Gras celebrations in February created a hot spot that infected thousands. I’m also witnessing the lag in response and the preparation of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to house patients battling COVID-19. The Morial Convention Center housed evacuees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many suffered and others died as they waited desperately for help to arrive. There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu. 

We are all collectively living through the worst global health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Our world will look different once this storm has passed. One of the lessons that I learned from living through Hurricane Katrina is that trauma seeps in if you don’t expect it or acknowledge it. It is not possible to live through something of this magnitude and remain fully unscathed. Many people are already describing how hard it is to perform at the same level productivity of even a recent week’s past. This is a normal response and many of us experienced something similar after Katrina. 

There will be rough patches ahead but what I know is that we’ll create a “new normal” from the ashes of COVID-19. What I learned from the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is that you can never fully recapture what existed before. New Orleans never returned to “normal” after Hurricane Katrina. It survived with great loss and pain and now swaths of it are transformed into something new. Similarly, it will be possible to take elements of our pre-COVID-19 lives and to create something anew. 

Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Dr. Chantelle

We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

PhD, English Literature, 2013

I graduated from my MA in 2008 at the peak of the financial crisis. Everyone around me was predicting that the non-academic job market would be awful for all the grads who entered that market. My department reached out to me in August 2008 to ask if I wanted to start a PhD in September 2008 (they recruited in my area because they hadn’t received a lot of applications for people in my sub-discipline). I had no other plans, so I said yes (the validation boost of being asked was also irresistible, and hard to turn down). 

I wish I’d had the confidence and the skills to take full ownership of my decisions. At 23, when I started my PhD, I was still very caught up in seeking approval from the “real” adults in my life and staying in graduate school made it easier to keep chasing approval rather than doing the self-examination necessary to determine my own path. If I hadn’t been asked, I might have taken more time to decide whether I wanted to continue on to the PhD. 

When I was doing my PhD, I saw my career goals as a high-stakes “game” in the way that the pursuit of absolute power in the game of thrones is a “game”. Looking back, this was silly, and again, spoke to a lack of clarity about what I hoped an academic career would bring and why I was pursuing a PhD. 

I “won” and got a full-time well-paying position as a visiting assistant professor in the U.S. (I’m Canadian). 

The VAP position was a series of 1 year contracts, but they renewed every year and it was fairly secure after the first year. However, I was so burned out from getting there that my career goals just never advanced. I had a reasonable rest between my PhD and my job — a full summer where I travelled and didn’t work — but it wasn’t enough to fully recover. I arrived at my 4/4 teaching job exhausted, and couldn’t keep up with publishing research and staying active on the academic job market.

In November of 2016, a tenure track position opened up at the school where I taught. I was invited to apply, but I would have been competing against a colleague I was close with (my fellow VAP), and I had serious doubts about my ability to commit to immigrating permanently to the U.S. (I’m LGBTQIA+ and long term fit was an issue, especially in 2016 when the future was so unpredictable). I decided not to apply to this TT job. Or, rather, I sat down at my computer to try to force myself to say yes I would apply, and found that I could not bring myself to say yes. 

I stayed on as a VAP. In the next year, a second TT job opened up at the school where I taught (unlikely miracle). My fellow VAP from last year had successfully won the TT job after a full search, and I was confident that if I applied, I would have a good shot in this year’s competition since the job was specifically tailored to my area of expertise. But again, I made the decision not to apply. My department renewed my VAP contract for another year after I didn’t apply for the 2016 TT position, and that was a gift   (gave me time to process, gather savings, make plans). My supportive department chair graciously scheduled two or three conversations with me over this two year period to confirm my decision and check that I wasn’t reconsidering, but I remained certain. I felt a lot of grief in leaving, but I knew that moving back to Canada was the right path for me and I knew that I wasn’t competitive enough after 4 years of a heavy 4/4 teaching load and minimal research productivity to get a tenure-track academic job in Canada. By 2018, I was ready to leave academia but it still wasn’t easy. 

For me, the problems that made academia unliveable long term were structural and personal — sacrifices I thought I could make when I started on the academic job market, but which ended up being dealbreakers in the end. Some of the personal problems might have been ameliorated with access to affordable weekly therapy to help manage burnout and anxiety. When I finally made enough money at my job to afford weekly therapy (subsidized by my workplace insurance), it made a big difference and I wished I’d had access to regular therapy earlier. I can imagine an alternate reality where I am highly motivated and driven as well as healthy and grounded, and in that scenario I could have sailed from PhD to VAP to TT job despite the dire state of the academic job market. 

I moved back to Canada, and gradually built up my work experience, starting with working part-time for my family’s business, then working as a temp, and now working on contracts at a university in administration.

I’m working in the city I dreamed of working in, at the institution that was my top choice when I was imagining my alternative career. I haven’t really “left” the ivory tower, but I did turn my back on one version of what staying looks like to find a career that felt more liveable long term. 

In the process, I’ve been learning (and am still learning) how to work as part of a team and how managerial relationships work (hierarchies work a bit differently in every office and are paradoxically more structured but less formal than they were for me as an academic). Since I stayed in higher ed, the transition has not been that hard, but it has been difficult dealing with becoming “the man” as an administrator, especially since my administrative labor is still contingent.

When I told people I was leaving in 2016, they were all immediately accepting and vocally supportive, even though they’d get this look of anxious puzzlement in their eyes. I’m from a discipline that’s very vocal about the structural problems of higher education so it was easy to have those conversations. I think the place I’ve felt the most undermined post-PhD is in trying to find work outside of academia. People have very very strange beliefs about PhD holders, despite the fact that we are a hugely heterogeneous group. I met with a staffing industry expert who had over 20 years of experience, and she was flummoxed at the idea that PhDs don’t just walk into tenure track jobs. It was undermining to see that she hadn’t come into any contact with the decades-long conversation about the academic job market and that she believed that PhDs could only be teachers (and was willing to argue with me about it when I mentioned that more than half of us do not work as academics). I got much better at camouflaging myself and rebranding myself so that people would not be aware that I was a PhD, and that was helpful for me professionally but it was personally alienating. 

This month marks two years since I turned in my last set of final grades and I’ve now settled into a position where I am constantly using the skills I developed during my PhD, and learning new skills all the time. The first year was hard and involved a lot of grinding, but I’m energized by what I can do and where I can go from here. Leaving can feel like you’re dying (or that a part of you is dying), especially if you’ve been trying so hard to stay that you’ve neglected developing other parts of your life and soul. But statistically and realistically, changing careers and redefining yourself are normal things to do and people are successfully doing it all the time, all around you, for all kinds of reasons. A transition can hurt, but it can ensure that you thrive in the long term.