The Art of Getting Involved

Myron Strong provides tips on how academics can take more active roles in their disciplines.

November 9, 2018
 
 

Four years ago, I was awarded my Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Texas and started my position as an assistant professor of sociology at the Community College of Baltimore County. During my 10 years in graduate school, I presented at only two conferences. I did not hold a position in any discipline-based organizations. Like many recent graduates, I was unsure where I fit in the wider discipline and how to get involved. I wasn’t the only one, as I heard this viewpoint frequently repeated when I talked to other young scholars.

I now serve on various committees within the American Sociological Association, Eastern Sociological Society and Association of Black Sociologists, including the ASA Status Committee on Race and Ethnicity. And my involvement within the discipline has been no accident. It has been the result of cultivating a digital identity and being proactive.

Over the past four years of attending academic conferences, I have noticed that the same people from the same institutions plan and present. This limits the number of different views and perspectives in the discipline, which in turn creates a narrow view that affects the funding, accessibility and understanding of the broad discipline. And oftentimes the reasons various people aren’t attending are quite practical and simple. For instance, I recently met with someone who claimed they were interested in going to conferences but did not because the organizers frequently didn’t take the concerns of individuals with physical disabilities into account. Also, although many organizations discount memberships and annual conference cost for adjuncts and people from teaching institutions, they do not offer travel assistance or only offer it on a competitive basis. That makes many conferences cost prohibitive.

These experiences have led me to conclude that disciplines need more people with different voices involved in their activities. Most academics are not on the tenure track at top research universities or other elite higher education institutions. For example, at a recent conference, I told a colleague at a major research university that my institution had now switched to using open educational resources, or OER -- free textbooks and resources that can be used and reused by students and faculty. My colleague had never heard of OER. What this tells me is that disciplines are not seeing the full picture. Academe needs people from a variety of institutions and even scholars from outside higher education -- those who may work for the government, nonprofits, think tanks and other organizations -- to get involved in the decision-making process for awards, committees and planning.

Some organizations recognize these issues and are attempting to address them. For example, the American Sociological Association is working to be more inclusive of sociologists from different institutions and with a variety of educational levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, types of experiences and expertise. My selection to the ASA Status Committee on Race and Ethnicity was in part because they wanted someone who worked at a community college and brought that experience to the committee.

Beyond the factors I’ve outlined above, new Ph.D. graduates and other academics are often also uncertain about how to get started, particularly those at teaching institutions and community colleges. So, based on my conversations with early-career and community college sociologists, I will offer some suggestions for getting involved -- with the caveat that individual effort won’t necessarily overcome structural factors -- though even those academics who recognize structural problems and have often been the victims of them have a real desire to get involved.

Here are some tips based on my experience.

Be confident in your value regardless of where you are in your career. Many scholars suffer from impostor syndrome shortly after completing their degree and are unsure how to become engaged. But whether you're employed as an adjunct, at a community college, a research university or outside academe, you are a source of knowledge. You have distinct experience and insights that you can share with others.

Develop a digital presence and reach out to fellow scholars. Twitter is one of the best ways to meet and interact; it helps keep you current on new research in your discipline as well as new trends and directions in it. I found that scholars on Twitter are generally open and willing to communicate, and I regularly tweet about them and their scholarship. Twitter makes it easy to learn about fellow scholars’ research (and they have likely learned about yours). It also can act as a support system because you can share and connect with people with similar interests -- some of whom are going through similar stresses professionally. Such connections may facilitate face-to-face meetings at conferences. Also, people recognize you from Twitter and often offer opportunities for conference presentations, fellowships, research projects and jobs.

Join professional organizations and get involved. While your discipline’s flagship conference may be too expensive, you can often join less costly regional and state organizations. The dues for regional organizations can be reasonable (as low as $15), and they often have conferences within driving distances. Some even have sections or committees dedicated to underrepresented groups. For instance, the Eastern Sociological Society has a community college committee that promotes community college scholars and has dedicated sections for sociologists at community colleges during the annual conference.

If you attend annual conferences, go to the business meetings. Get to know people and offer to volunteer. And even if you do not attend, email the organization’s officers and offer to volunteer. The more people involved, the more representative the decisions will be. Go to conference receptions, too. They are a great way to meet and make connections with scholars in a noncompetitive, less stressful (though it can feel like a middle school dance) environment. Even if you do not attend conferences, you can follow the new research and general discussions on social media through organization pages and hashtags on Twitter.

Present your work whenever possible. There are lots of spaces to present your teaching or research. Most conferences only require an abstract. I have presented at various conferences, and most people are open, encouraging and supportive.

In short, disciplinary organizations need to become more inclusive. But unless we in those disciplines push them, those changes won’t happen. You can make a difference.

Bio

Myron Strong is an assistant professor of sociology at the Community College of Baltimore County in Baltimore. His current research explores race, gender and social factors in comics. He has published in academic journals, anthologies and encyclopedias. He has presented papers at numerous conferences, including those of the American Sociological Association, Association of Black Sociologists, Eastern Sociological Society and Southwestern Sociological Association.

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