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Who Let an Activist in Here?
April 23, 2014 - 8:28pm

Today’s post in the University of Venus’s on-going  Scholars Strike Back series comes from Eric Anthony Grollman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. Drawing from personal experience as an “activist gone academic,” Grollman outlines the steps taken in cultivating a life as a public scholar, focusing on the influence of - and assistance from - mentors and advisors. A version of this post originally appeared on Grollman’s blog, Conditionally Accepted.

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.

 

In an era of second, third, fourth… rounds in the job market, with the majority of instructors holding contingent positions — a disproportionate number of them Black and women scholars — I am here: a 28-year-old fat Black queer intellectual activist sociologist, in a tenure-track faculty position at a highly-ranked liberal arts university in the US. Add to my marginalized social location, my research interests in discrimination, sexuality, and the intersections among race, gender, social class, weight, and sexual orientation, along with a list of service experience on my CV that clearly reflects community service — lots of it.  And, finally, my very public and provocative reputation on social media.  To my relief, securing a job as an activist-academic has not turned out to be an error on the university’s part; they knew what they were getting and actually wanted someone like me. It has taken some time to recognize how professors, mentors, friends, and family supported and encouraged me to subvert, resist, demand change, speak up, and pave my own trail.

In the social media age, regularly presenting and describing one’s self in highly-public online spaces is now a regular task.  Since I joined Facebook in 2003, I have often described myself as an “activist gone academic.”  Now, a decade later, I am surprised I even had a sense of what these distinct identities mean, and a fuzzy sense of the loose relationship between them.  To give myself a little more credit, one of the major reasons for deciding on Sociology as my major was to become a better, more informed activist.  That later served as one of my major reasons for pursuing a PhD.

Along the way, faculty and student affairs staff supported my advocacy efforts and, more importantly, supported my effort to bridge academia and activism.  As a member of the Students Events Board at UMBC, I created the “Cinema Series” — a monthly film series on social justice-oriented films (e.g., Crash, Brokeback Mountain, North Country) followed by Q&A facilitated by a professor.  As I co-led a campus group to advocate for greater services and resources for LGBT students (particularly the creation of an LGBT campus resource center), I had the support of a number of faculty.  Beyond those directly involved, I had a couple of professors who allowed me to use this initiative as a part of the major papers for their classes.

The critical point where I was encouraged to bring activism and academia together was my sociology honors thesis.  As the initiative to create the “Rainbow Center” (LGBT campus resource center) stalled, I turned my attention to completing an honors thesis to increase my appeal to graduate programs.  Initially, I proposed studying LGBT activism on campus.  My advisor, Dr. Fred Pincus, encouraged me to focus instead on a topic that would 1) provide further evidence for the need of an LGBT campus resource center, and 2) advance my academic career.  So, I decided on the most obvious: attitudes toward lesbian and gay people among students.  With the mentorship of my other advisor, Dr. Ilsa Lottes, I published my thesis in the university’s journal for undergraduate research, presented it at the undergraduate research fair, and then she and I published another paper in the International Journal of Sexual Health.  These mentors demonstrated that academia could, indeed, serve as a vehicle to create social change.

In addition to these positive experiences, there were also the negatives. A former professor of mine from my graduate program wrote a blog response to me about activist efforts in academia: “Why activism and academia don’t mix.”  I would say this sentiment generally reflects the department’s views on activism.  Oddly enough, there was (limited) support for public sociology.  However, the message that was sent to me was to limit how much service you do, keep it a secret, and that producing knowledge (not producing change) was our top priority as researchers.  So, I followed suit — I kept my (community) service private and learned how to “mainstream” my research.  After all, graduate training is part training and part professional socialization.  We are resocialized to become scholars, not just to do scholarship.

But, it seems the support I received to develop a career as an activist-academic did not exist during the early years of graduate school — the nadir of my training. That time was spent mostly in classes and serving as a teaching assistant.  I was merely a student — angry and a potential drop-out — in those days.

Support did emerge in the latter half, as I began doing my own research.  It was subtle, only visible to me after some time.  For one of my advisors, “my number 2” in my mind, it crystallized for me as we were talking through what would become my first solo-authored publication.  “Wait… so this paper is pretty much about intersectionality!?”  Without skipping a beat, and without a hint of surprise, my advisor said, “yeah!  because that’s what you’re interested in.”  My surprise that I was being encouraged to so directly tie my passion to the research I was doing reflects a number of years of feeling the two could never co-exist.  Sure, intersectionality is a theoretical framework, not an activist initiative, per se.  But, in this conversation, it became apparent that this advisor’s approach to mentoring me intentionally drew in what I was passionate about (both as a scholar and activist).  And, the surprise to my surprise said so much — what other way is there to mentor a student?!

It took all six years – literally until the day I graduated – to see my main advisor’s support to develop an activist-academic career.  It was never explicitly acknowledged, and it never took the form I would expect; and that is exactly why I did not see it.  Yes, for all of my critiques of the pressure I felt to “mainstream” my research, I can actually see the positive intentions behind this advisor’s approach.  There was a great deal of “tough love” that aimed to push my efforts to make change via research on the biggest scale possible.  There was sort of an unspoken “go big or go home” — that being cutting-edge and critical are meaningless if it stays on the margins.

In a way, this reflected “slow-boil activism,” a term I use to describe the practice of academics who push gently, evenly, and slowly so that they may advance to a more powerful position, with a larger audience.  My own critique of this approach is first, how much one must bite one’s tongue and compromise to stay on this path and, second, that waiting to make a big difference in 5, 10, or 20 years is a gamble on time not promised to you.  But, I would be a hypocrite to disparage this approach because, in many ways, I am enacting this strategy on my own career.  My point, here, is that my chair, in his own way, was also supporting me in my development of an activist-academic career.

These experiences paved the way for my current position: working as a professor at an institution that wanted someone who would bring about change.  I am not expected to hide my blogging and community service - these activities are actually embraced, and were viewed as strengths when I interviewed.  Of course, I am certain the other appeal is that I have a strong research record.  (As I said, my career is one as an activist-academic.)  Now, I am in yet another chapter of my academic career in which activism is supported.

Elsewhere, I have made the point that academia and activism do mix.  What I wish to emphasize here is that, though not always made explicit, I have benefited from the support of mentors and advisors who think so, too.  These were people who knew from the start who I am and what I am passionate about.  Contrary to the anti-activism norms that exist throughout much of academia, there appear to be pockets where, to some degree, scholars are willing to support the bridging between the two as a core part of the contemporary path to a permanent academic position.


Eric Anthony Grollman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond.  He is the editor of ConditionallyAccepted.com, a blog for marginalized academics. Follow him on twitter @grollman

 

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