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Title

Going Rogue

Can you reject your profs’ opinions and still expect to be welcomed into the academy?

February 20, 2020
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson earned her Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She is the interim director of the UM Tupelo Campus Writing Center and teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Can you swim against the academic tide and still ace your initiation into the ranks of the professoriate?

The answer to that question has nagged me ever since I witnessed two seasoned professors, one after the other, dissuade a colleague from using a relatively benign phrase in his research presentation. The expression was innocuous. It was inoffensive. It’s a term used to describe a manner of academic leadership, but here it was at the center of a low-key war of words.

Just a few hours earlier, four of us, all early-career researchers, were panelists who had just finished presenting our academic work at a writing and rhetoric conference. As we were gathering our things to leave the room, the two higher education profs walked toward the lectern to compliment one of my colleagues, but not before gently rebuking his use of the term. I decline to use it here for fear of outing my colleague, who is a full-time, non-tenure-track instructor.

Trust me when I say this phrase is as banal as “empirical” anything and as ubiquitous as your garden-variety “dichotomy.”

When we discussed the encounter, my colleague seemed as flummoxed as I was about his random citation from the academic word police. We shared the same reaction, mystified that the two words he used in his talk triggered so much aversion among these particular veteran academics.

Fight the power! It seemed to me to be a watershed moment, time for him to go rogue and continue to use the term, which is a central focus of his original research. Months later, he has indeed extended his research and submitted another conference proposal that digs deeper into the phrase, examining its history, applied theories, social contexts and relevance for grad students and junior researchers in his degree field. As a consequence, will he still be able to find a receptive audience for his research and circulate among academic circles unfettered?

Should you decide to strictly follow your inclination and ignore the seemingly arbitrary advice of senior faculty, consider the following:

Consequences: Be prepared for the backlash. Some of the mentors and professors with whom you’ve built trust may not support your research goals. Your ego may be bruised. Your self-esteem may be battered. But then, again, you may rally encouragement from others.

The need to tread carefully: If you believe that you’re making a meaningful difference in your field, being conscientious and committed to your work can help stave off any setbacks along the way. Ensure that you can competently defend and validate your work.

Calling on allies in high places: Standing alone in your research is a lonely place, but having allies to support you is crucial for your professional validation and personal sanity.

Benefiting from support systems: Practicing self-care, self-care and self-care is a must, especially when you may find yourself repelling attacks on your research more frequently. The whole world’s not against you as you proceed along your chosen research path, but it may seem like it is.

The academy, in many ways, still is deemed a “closed society,” where fewer than 2 percent of Americans hold Ph.D.s. Conformity abounds. It’s why many grad students and, perhaps, other early-career researchers avoid using unpopular terms in a talk or expressing a divergent opinion or atypical inquiry in ways that deviate from what is considered the norm without fear of being shunned from the academy or its circles. “Going rogue” in the lecture hall is fraught with variables that can invite derision, inspire healthy and enriching debate, and summon all other factors in between. However, the consequences for grad students and contingent faculty -- depending on their “preordained” status as superstars -- may be detrimental.

Despite perceived advancements in academic culture, namely, the expansion of who is allowed admittance into the club and what subjects are worthy to be researched, degrees of conformity remain. For many grad students, adopting a level of stoicism, where one knows and accepts the limitations, is a means of academic survival. It’s also the long-term approach to surviving and ultimately passing the extended academic initiation on the way to finally earning the degree.

Consider the messages that are communicated in grad school and in other sectors of higher education: 1) You should be writing (during every minute of your free time)! For shame, if you're not. 2) The best dissertation is a done dissertation! In other words, don’t aim too high; just get it done.

The academy implores us to conduct original inquiry; however, we can expect pushback if our research provokes negative connotations deemed too “unconventional.” While you may see your seminal scholarship as breaking new ground and demonstrating innovation, be prepared for others, including your mentors and professors, to see something else that you may not have intended, making your initiation into the professoriate even more challenging than you had anticipated.

What are your experiences with “going rogue”? Is it worth it to be a graduate student nonconformist in academia today? Share your thoughts in the comments!

[Photo by Javier García on Unsplash.]

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