CHICAGO -- In May, when Saida Grundy found herself being skewered by the conservative blogosphere, Fox News and others, she made a point not to read or listen to most of the commentary. "I was afraid to Google myself," she said in an interview here. Some friends forwarded material, and Grundy couldn't avoid it altogether, she said, but she didn't want to get consumed by the commentary.
"So many caring people told me that they couldn't imagine what it would be like to start [on the tenure track] immediately after" the onslaught, she said. "But I still really don't fully understand the scope of it."
That she didn't read everything may make it easier for her, she said, to keep the focus where it should be for a new assistant professor, in her case in sociology at Boston University. She's thinking about a book built on her dissertation. She's planning her classes.
And here, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, she's trying to be the standard new Ph.D. who is moving to the professoriate. She greets grad school friends in the aisles of the exhibit hall. She's a good disciplinary citizen by moderating a panel with the decidedly not sexy topic of “Regular Session: Qualitative Methodology” and she brings enthusiasm to introducing speakers and helping with transitions from one speaker to the next though the audience is inevitably small at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning (20 people, including six speakers, Grundy and this reporter).
But Grundy knows she's not just any new assistant professor. In May, various websites noted her Twitter comments on race, tweets she wrote while finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Tweets such as “Why is white America so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” left her branded as anti-white, a black racist and any number of other things. Numerous pundits and bloggers urged Boston University to revoke its job offer -- it did not do so, although the president criticized her comments, hardly the kind of attention an assistant professor wants before she has even started. A white "conservation" group known as the National Youth Front has been posting flyers at BU, calling on the institution to fire Grundy.
Grundy's experience -- followed by others in which minority female sociologists became the targets of campaigns over their comments on race -- has been much analyzed, by her supporters and critics alike. She has remained largely silent since May, answering only a few questions from various reporters. But here, she agreed to her first full interview on her experiences in May and since, and on her views on talking about race (while a minority female sociologist) as well as the status of her discipline and her plans for research.
Looking back, Grundy said she was "completely naïve" about Twitter as a platform. “I was intentionally, strategically low profile before this happened," she said. Grundy said she wasn't trying to increase her number of followers or to debate issues, or to present the equivalent of scholarly papers. She just wanted to chat with a small group of like-minded people.
"I wanted to speak to a bubble. I was not trying for a mass conversation," she said.
"What I did not calculate was that there are people who hunt" for Twitter comments to publicize and criticize, Grundy said. "I did not account for the hunters."
Grundy also said she didn't think about how she would be described as "a professor" when she hadn't even started. That title "has power," she said, which wasn't immediately clear to her as she was finishing up her doctorate. And as a result, she said, she created pressures on Boston University that she didn't intend. “I deeply regret the position I put other people in, especially in my absence since I wasn’t at BU yet."
Many job advice experts for academics have looked at Grundy's experience and told young academics, especially minority female academics who write about controversial topics, to stay away from social media.
But Grundy -- though her Twitter account is now private -- disagrees.
"I had a number of senior women of color who reached out to me," she said. "The very clear message I got is that it’s not a matter of a medium. These issues are unavoidable for a person of color who will work on issues of race. The idea that if you shut down social media you will avoid the battles, that is a fallacy."
Carrying the argument further, Grundy said that if scholars of climate change were advised to stay away from social media because they will be attacked by people who don't know anything about science, "then we wouldn't know a lot that we do about global warming."
'I Do Race Out Loud'
Whether on Twitter or in more formal scholarship, scholars who question popular assumptions about race are going to run into a backlash, Grundy said. And they should just be ready for it.
When analyzing the reaction to her comments, Grundy said, "The first thing I have tried to explain to myself was that the country is very race illiterate. Just like we have a problem with science literacy, we have a problem with race literacy. You have these claims to sort of a social common sense about race that is actually not a common sense at all."
Sociologists "are trying to destroy many assumptions about race and that's extremely upsetting to many people."
Too many people, she said, simply treat sociologists as people who have a set of opinions. The discipline needs, she said, to assert that the findings of its members deserve some respect. “For sociology in particular we have to double down on the fact that we do research, that we have theory, that we have historical knowledge and that these things are not our opinions."
Grundy criticized language used by many college administrators when a sociologist or another scholar becomes controversial. "One of the greatest injustices we do, particular to women and people of color, is to say that these are just one person’s opinions." She said that when "even well-meaning" officials use that language, it denigrates sociology.
She said that when scholars in some fields haven't defended sociology, they've opened themselves up to the same lack of recognition of authority as scholars. For example, historically many politicians and members of the public have deferred to medical scholars. But today, not so much, she said. "When you have someone who can graduate from Google university, and they say they know more about immunization and vaccines than medical doctors," something is wrong, Grundy said.
A Research and Teaching Agenda
Grundy's research focuses on issues of gender, race and identity in black men -- specifically the elite "Morehouse men" who are graduates of Morehouse College. For her dissertation, which she's now expanding to a book, Grundy interviewed Morehouse College alumni 10 years after graduation -- as she wanted to be able to reflect their experiences of manhood as influenced not only by Morehouse but by later experiences, too. Grundy was an undergraduate at Spelman College, and so saw Morehouse up close.
She will be teaching two courses this coming semester at BU -- both on race and ethnicity. One will be for undergraduates and one for graduate students. Both, she noted, were filled up well before she became well-known in May.
Grundy said she will give all students a "safe, normal learning environment." She said she realizes that her experience in May could be an "elephant in the room" when the courses start. Grundy said she will answer students' questions but doesn't plan to add her experience to the syllabi for these courses.
"I don’t think there is any pedagogical value to discussing my experience," she said, especially when there are so many topics that she can't find time to include. Grundy said that if she ever teaches a course on the public role of knowledge, she might include her experience this year.
As to starting on the tenure track amid tremendous publicity -- much of it negative -- Grundy isn't worried. "My colleagues in sociology and African-American studies are measuring me by the merits of my work," she said. "I enjoy the unpredictability of my own future."
Grundy stressed that while many look at her situation in May and see all the criticism, she sees much more.
“I felt a forming of ranks with me," she said. "I so appreciate my colleagues and so many people who sent supportive messages and thoughtful critiques to me." She's excited to start the semester and to establish herself at BU as a scholar and a teacher, armed with knowledge of what it's like to have "crosshairs on you." Added Grundy: "The silver lining is that I got this crash course in the professoriate that takes many people a decade."