Thursday, August 30, 2007

To be or not to be... out

When I do lectures about lesbian/gay/bisexual (LGB) issues for students, I often discuss the challenges of "being out." I explain that it is relatively impossible in our heterosexist culture to just make a declaration one time that one is LGB and be done with it. Society asserts that everyone is heterosexual, and most people operate from that default. As a result, most LGB folks have to come out over and over again.

This also holds true for LGB faculty members. There are many methods and venues in which a LGB faculty member can be out in academe, which lead to a constant series of choices to be made throughout one's career. So far, I have been employed as an assistant/associate professor in academe less than 10 years. In that time, I have had to decide:
  • whether to come out to the search committee
  • whether to disclose to the chair/dean, ask for accommodations for a partner or push for additional compensation to make up for the missing health care benefits provided to heterosexual colleagues
  • whether to disclose to colleagues in other departments (because disclosure to the search committee basically outs you to the department)
  • whether to disclose to students and in what fashion
  • whether to pursue research in an LGBT-related area
  • whether to become the "token lesbian" for colleagues who need an appropriate and educated guest speaker
  • whether to act as advisor to the queer student group or serve on the LGBT-related university committee
  • whether to serve on thesis/dissertation committes for students pursuing LGBT-related research
  • whether to participate in community service activities that are LGBT-related
  • whether to speak out on campus about LGBT-related policies and anti-LGBT practices
  • whether to speak out in the local, state, and national media on LGBT-related issues in higher education

Now, I will admit that these choices are somewhat particular to my discipline (e.g., it is probably harder for a physicist to pursue LGBT-related research), my personal commitment to educating people about homophobia and heterosexism, and my intention to work for a better life for LGBT students, faculty, and staff on campus and LGBTs in our world. I also speak out on other issues of oppression and discrimination, as well, but that kind of advocacy is less personally marking.

The scary thing for those of us with aspirations for leadership in higher education is that each decision, each level of "outing," is a risk. Further, working to change university, local, state, and federal policies brings with it the possibility of me being seen as strident, unprofessional, consumed with a personal cause, and just plain "too dykey." (Which, as my lesbian and gay male friends will attest, is categorically different from being "too gay." Gay guys have to worry about seeming weak and effeminate; we lesbians have to worry about being too strong (read: butch), shrill, and scary.)

The level of risk is apparent when looking for out LGB role models in higher education central administration. A recent story in the Chronicle about gay male college/university presidents or chancellors identified a total of three gay men in these roles, all at small private schools. (I can't find it, but a follow-up story or comment named a few additional out gay men in similar leadership roles.) It is exciting to see out gay leaders; it would be more exciting to me to see out lesbian leaders, especially those who don't commit suicide (see the tragic story of Denice Denton, the former Chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz). I have met and spoken with several out lesbians and bisexual women who have made it into positions in higher administration (dean, vice provost), but none in the highest positions.

At every stage of my career, I have gotten the message,"You don't have to tell everything." I am not good at hearing or accepting that message, partly because I have trouble countenancing the complicity with oppression that it involves. I made a decision early on in my professional career to be out basically all the time. And in choosing to teach, research, and do service related to LGBT issues, I have pretty much insured that there is no turning back. The evidence is there, forever, on my vitae. And yet... new choices arrive daily, each on a broader stage, requiring more outness, and at each stage I get nervous. And I have realized that the answer to the question/opportunity is not always yes.

For example, I have served as what I call a "professional queer" for many years in different schools. I have visited classes, spoken at meetings, led workshops, and spoken to the media about gay issues. And at some point I realized that it was time to stop saying "yes." If I kept offering to do the gay lecture for class, the teacher never had to learn about the material. In my own classes, I certainly lecture on things that are not in my area of expertise, which requires studying the topic and preparing for activities and questions. I realized that I was denying my colleagues a wonderful opportunity to learn more about LGBT issues by taking everything on myself. So, I am now trying to decline these invitations.

I also have been counseled by family, friends, and mentors to turn down some "opportunities" that do not serve my own interests, and that might, in fact, hurt me. This is a harder pill for me to swallow, because it feels both selfish and cowardly. Yet, when dealing with the media, who have their own agendas and spin to put on the news, it is a greater risk to be out and outspoken about LGBT issues. With the internet, news stories have a longer half-life than ever. A poorly written or biased story that misuses quotes and/or pictures might have a long-term impact on a career.

It is funny, but saying "yes" to being out is so much easier for me to do. Perhaps my struggle can be explained as the problem many women have of saying "no." Perhaps it is vanity--liking the idea of participating on a public stage and getting attention on such a large scale. Perhaps it is about wanting to be authentic. But in my heart of hearts, I know deep down that some opportunities should be refused. And perhaps if I don't step out this time, I can be one of those out lesbian presidents who can speak out later.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Oh. My. God.

The school year has officially begun, and I am trying to recover from the whiplash. Between orientations and advising for new students, student crises, student disciplinary proceedings, new course prep, and preparing for our first faculty meeting (and the attendant submeetings)--not to mention the conference proposal that got misplaced, the ongoing research project, and the planning for a trip to a family event coming up--life has been a little overwhelming.

I know everyone can relate to the back-to-school frenzy. Life as an administrator just amps it up to a whole different level. My gf just reminds me daily that this too shall pass--and that it happens every year at this time, so I should stop being surprised now that I am in the fourth year in this administrative position. "Just breathe," she says. (You know why I love her, right?)

The good news is that all the balls are in the air, none have fallen, and all I have needed is a couple martinis and some m&m's... not at the same time, tho. And next week seems almost empty by comparison! At least, it is now, until the meetings get planned and my time dribbles away.

Hopefully, by the end of the month, the workload will be back to normal, I can go see some movies, and hang out with the gf like I used to do. And then I can rub my sore neck and forget the beginning of semester disaster until next year!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why all the transphobic hatin?

This is not an academic post, but I had to write about this on the blog. Perhaps I am channeling one of my favorite bloggers, Bitch PhD. I am so mad and sad I could just spit, so I need to bitch a little.

Okay, so I am one of those people who like to read the "News of the Weird" section in my local paper. Often the news articles cover silly or odd things like a thief who left his wallet at the scene of the crime and returned to get it, or a dog who inherited a million dollars.

Today, however, this was a profiled story:
Widower Charlie Bonn Kemp, 77, of Vero Beach, Fla., took especially hard
the loss of his wife, Lee, in 2006 because she was unquestionably the love of
his life even though the couple stopped having sex even before they got married
in 1978, according to a June St. Petersburg Times profile. Lee had been
Charlie's gay lover for 26 years, until revealing in 1978 that he could no
longer resist the urge to become a woman, and especially a housewife. Such was
their attachment that, following Lee's full sex change, she and Charlie decided
to take advantage of Lee's new status and legally marry and continue their
devotion, even though Charlie remained sexually attracted only to men. [St.
Petersburg Times, 6-24-07]

The way the summary of the story mocks Lee and Charlie just irritated the hell out of me. "Even though they stopped having sex" and "especially a housewife" just does a real injustice to the complicated story of this couple--a gay man (Charlie) and a transwoman (Lee) who fell in love when both were living as gay men and who continued their love relationship through Lee's transition and her eventual illness and death.

The full feature profile in the St. Petersburg Times is incredibly moving. They met in 1952, bought a house together, and faced struggle when Lee announced, after a failed suicide attempt in 1975, that he wanted a sex change. It wasn't easy for either of them.

"I didn't understand how any man could want to do that, " [Charlie] says. "But I saw how miserable Lee was. I wanted him to be happy." His voice breaks. "I loved him."
Charlie looks up to the box [of Lee's ashes] on the refrigerator. He wipes his eyes. Switches pronouns. "To this day, I love her."

Even though Charlie would never again be in a sexual relationship with Lee, they continued to live together, were married in 1978, and Charlie cared for Lee as she was dying. He slept on the floor by her bed when she was hospitalized with Alzheimers and lung cancer, and he imagines the day when he will die and their ashes will be mixed together and scattered.
"I never had any interest in women. But I loved Lee, " Charlie says. He wipes
his cheek. "I guess I loved her for being him."

I encourage you to read it and consider the ways in which we love, fail, and support our partners in the face of challenges. This couple deserved so much more than to appear in News of the Weird.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Becoming the Old Guard

I started kindergarten at 4 years old. A tall child, I didn't look younger than the other kids, and my strong reading and social skills helped me be successful. No one ever suggested to my parents that I zhould be held back, so I progressed into first grade. Nonetheless, I always knew I was younger, and it often set me apart from the other children.

As a result of starting school young, I have always been the youngest in my year/grade/cohort. I graduated high school at 17 and went on to be one of the youngest students in my undergraduate and graduate programs. In my first grad program, many of my colleagues were just a little older, as they were also coming right out of undergrad. However, my doctoral program was in a professional academic field where most students had years of work experience. I was the youngest by far, the average age being about 15 years older than me.

This trend has followed me into my professional life as an academic. At both my first and second jobs, the majority of my colleagues were approximately 20-25 years older. That has all ended now, though, in my current position.

In the last 3 years, our department has hired a number of people. Almost a quarter of the newer faculty are actually younger than me. I find myself noticing several things about this turn of events.

First, I have moved, quickly and rather unintentionally, into the role of mentor. I am regularly approached by younger faculty for advice about managing student concerns, publishing and writing woes, teaching dilemmas, and office politics. I have found that I like being a sounding board and providing feedback as I can.

Second, I find that I occasionally miss being the "precocious" upstart who impresses simply because I seem extremely capable given my age/lack of experience. Luckily, I still get a little of the youthful luster from my work as an administrator and as the leader within our professional organization. At the last meeting of mid-level administrators at my university, most of the folks attending were older than me. One staff member told me that I was seen by others as an "up-and-comer," a moniker that is familiar and pleasing. I wonder sometimes what will become of me when I can no longer claim that role. While I do enjoy the confidence and sense of self that my life experience has brought me, I am somewhat worried about the day when I will be evaluated only on what I do--regardless of my age.

Third, I am beginning to identify with the older faculty. I recognize that we more senior faculty have our own fears, concerns, and issues. We get tied to "the ways we do things," and we sometimes resent young upstarts who think they have the answers without considering the history behind the questions. While it was hard to create a place in the department for myself as a young new faculty member, it is equally challenging now to develop relationships with the younger new hires. When they congregate in each other's offices, go out for drinks, and enjoy dinners and outings with their young families, older faculty like me awkwardly try to join conversations and connect across the years. The older we get, the more challenging the connection seems to be. Perhaps I am more aware of this shift because I am on the cusp of "older faculty" status--fearing the loss of my youthful status and yet not officially part of either group.

As regular readers know, I have been a part of a number of different university settings--8 in all (3 as an undergrad, 2 as a grad student, and 3 as a professional). This year marks the beginning of the longest time I have spent in one place as a faculty member. Reaching this mark has made me aware of how my role and my perspective have changed. I am becoming part of the "older" guard, and I am not quite sure I like it.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Reflections on a new hiring season

I have served on several hiring committees: once as a student and several more as a faculty member. I like being part of the hiring process. In addition to the subsidized trips to professional conferences and the free meals with candidates (which still seem to my former grad student heart to be just unbelieveable perks!), I get to help determine how our program will grow, what needs are met, and what priorities will be supported. In each search, I learn more about people and programs across the country, what research is being done and by whom, and what concerns candidates--all of which gives me a better insight into the future of my discipline.

Reading application files is a learning experience, as well. I initially was shocked by the many poorly written cover letters, disorganized and oddly structured vitae, shoddy packets, and occasionally damning and/or self-congratulatory letters of reference. I always walk away with additional respect for my own doctoral program, which emphasized professional development of doc students by sending us to professional conferences and mentoring us about the hiring process.

Reading applicants' materials reminded me of a job I used to have reading grant applications from small public and private agencies. These applications, often completed by people with high school or undergraduate degrees, had sentences in them that were so bad or silly that I kept a running list for my own amusement.

Yet, these funding applications had nothing on some of the worst cover letters I have seen for faculty positions, written by applicants who had much more education. I saw one letter that was only one sentence--one of those "attached please find my application for this job" deals. Clearly that candidate had not been schooled in the art of the gracious introduction. Another letter, pockmarked with spelling errors and thesaurus abuse (e.g., I engaged in prodigious research on voluminous topics), was filled with flat-out bragging about the candidate's skills and talents. (Worse yet, the candidate of the long, tedious letter got an offer.)

Search committee members may disagree with me, but here are my suggestions for people applying this fall:

  1. Be clear about what kind of program you want. In addition to the regular divisions (Research Universities, small liberal arts colleges (SLACS), and community colleges), there are divisions at each level. For example, there are R1 university programs that are known as places that will set you up for a high salary and tenure anywhere you want--but not at that school. All you need to 3-5 years at that school, and you can go elsewhere. While you are there, you will work incredibly hard in research and service (b/c the senior faculty don't do service) and get very little mentoring. Other R1 university programs, like my own, are still regarded highly, but we have more reasonable research and teaching expectations and you can actually get tenure here. Or you might opt for smaller SLACs, where you can have fewer research expectations (and supports), but where you can really focus on teaching and relationships with students. I also would encourage candidates to also think about where you want to live, but don't be completely ruled by that unless you have a very good reason.

  2. Don't go on the market too early. While some folks will suggest that doing these interviews gets you good practice experience, I would argue that it saps your emotional and professional energy. Better to use that energy to finish the dissertation. And it also helps to have a completed degree, or a close-to-finished dissertation, while you are on the market. Further, use that last year to publish an article, do a presentation or two at your professional conferences, and get your priorities in order. And while you are at your professional conferences, make the rounds with your faculty and have them introduce you to people at schools that interest you. (That said, if you see the perfect job [i.e., right location, right kind of school, right disciplinary area], apply for that one. Perfect jobs don't come around often.)

  3. If something is noted as a preference, not a requirement, don't let that keep you from applying. If we say, "We are looking for candidates in X area," don't apply if that is not your area. If we say, "We prefer candidates in X area," that means the committee members are not settled about what we need, and we would certainly look at your materials. (Personal aside: I once did not apply for a great job when they said they had a preference for someone in areas different from my own, and then they wound up hiring someone who did research very similar to my own. Sigh.)

  4. Don't send more than we ask for. Nothing annoys me more than when we get tons of extra materials (copies of teaching evaluations, publications or dissertation chapters, syllabi, etc.). Wait until we ask for it. Most of the time we ignore it, and it just clogs up the drawer. Worse yet, it aggravates some of us! ;-)

  5. Spend time on your cover letter and CV. Be sure you know the differences between an academic cover letter and CV and the kinds you see for non-academic jobs. Look at cover letters and CVs from others in your field, if you can, and have people look at yours. Nothing is worse than an application full of errors, overstatements, and omissions. You need to balance bragging on yourself with being humble. It is a hard job, and it will help to get assistance from others.

  6. Use examples. Everywhere. When you write the cover letter and you say that you "involve students" in your teaching, give us at least one example. If your research is groundbreaking, explain in what ways. Similarly, when you come to the conference for an interview, you can stand out by giving us examples from your teaching, research, and service. I have seen this approach also work well for administrative candidates.

  7. When you go to campus to do the presentation, don't read your PowerPoint slides. This is a pet peeve of mine. The secret of PowerPoint is that the slides serve to keep the reader focused. Put your main points there, or a picture that relates to the information, but keep more thorough information on your own presentation notes. Also, if you are dealing with complex tables, make them a separate (full-page) handout and do not try to put the whole table on the slide if font size has to drop below 24. And always face the audience. Nothing is worse than watching a presenter's back. Also, make sure you really have the presentation. Before you travel, put it on a jump drive, email it to the chair, and email it to yourself. Nothing worse than not having the presentation!

  8. Practice and proofread everything: your conference interview, your campus job talk, your campus teaching demo...everything. Ask some good friends and mentors to give you honest feedback. It makes a difference to practice and prepare. I would even practice answers to questions about salary expectations and the later salary negotiations. Sometimes people get an offer on the day of the on-campus interview; know what you want to say.

  9. Assume that everything will go much more slowly than you think it should. Once I got on the hiring side, I realized that it takes a long time. Search chairs frequently have good intentions, but may make unreasonable commitments to candidates. Initially, committees have to read all of the materials and find a time to meet, good for everyone, to discuss applicants. Then paperwork must be submitted before we can call to set up conference interviews. It then takes a while for the committee to meet after the conference to discuss candidates, submit more paperwork, and set the time for candidate visits. This lengthy process just goes on and on: meetings, paperwork, contacting candidates, discussions with faculty and students, etc. So, feel free to check in if it has taken WAY longer than someone told you it would, but don't be a pest. DO call, however, if you get another offer; things can be goosed along a little bit if you have a pressing need. DON'T tell us you have an offer if you don't--the community is too small to lie.

  10. Don't take it too personally if you don't get the job. There are so many reasons that it doesn't work out. Hiring committees and deans are weighing a lot of factors, and straight-out merit or capability is not the only criteria. If you want information about your performance, you can call the search chair. Don't ask "Why didn't you hire me?" There is not a good answer to this question, and it is really a personnel issue that should not be discussed. Instead, say something like, "I am curious if there are some things I could improve in my application or interviewing. You won't hurt my feelings. I really want to be a better candidate next year." You still may not get a good answer, but if you had someone like me, you might. I would tell candidates about useful concerns or comments that I had heard. For example, we had a candidate at one of my programs who did an especially poor job explaining why s/he wanted to pursue a job in our discipline, when s/he had graduate training in another discipline. This was a place where I would suggest that s/he work on a better answer with hir mentor.
  11. Look at the interview process as a learning experience. You will get much clearer about your own research, your professional needs, and your personal needs. You also will learn a good deal about the diversity of programs in your field, the differences between programs at research and teaching settings, and the kinds of lives you can have at each.
  12. Don't burn any bridges (Note: I have learned this one the hard way) or hold grudges for not being hired. Some of my favorite professional connections have been people I met at schools where I interviewed. You never know when those people might become research collaborators, reviewers for tenure, or even future colleagues. I have had all of these relationships with people who I met while interviewing.

Ah, the season is just about upon us... try to enjoy what is left of the summer!

Friday, August 03, 2007


Okay, so I know it has been a while. I have been traveling to do more research, which was followed by some heavy political organizing (which was happily successful, by the way!)...

I am so glad to be back and have those projects behind me. But, I still have to complain a little, because work projects loom in my Outlook task list, a pen-and-paper list on my desk, and another list on the white board in my office. The biggest problem? They are all different sets of tasks! (sigh)

Ah, well. I promise to post something good and substantial soon.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the folks in Minnesota. There is a program in my field at the University there. I hope everyone I know is okay. What a terrible tragedy.

Well, that signals time for signing off. Check in again soon for several new posts.