Academia and the Damage Done: How Academia and Pursuit of Tenure is Killing Me, and how I’m Fighting Back.
Disclaimer: This blog post is my truth and experience and is not meant to throw any person or institution under the bus, but the criticality of it is purposeful and I stand behind the content as it is my narrative to tell. About a week ago, I received an email from my doctor with the results of my annual physical and blood work. He states, “Your A1C panel is consistent with Type II Diabetes, your blood pressure is stage II hypertension, and your lipid counts indicate extremely high cholesterol. You need a stress test asap and we must start medication treatment for all of it. I will be frank with you, if you don’t lose weight, reduce your stress level, and start taking better care of yourself, you are going to die an early death.” His message was not what I wanted to hear two months shy of my 40th birthday. Full disclosure: I have not had the easiest of lives or the most difficult or circumstances compared to many. I am a survivor of poverty, violence, and trauma, and with those things comes residual challenges that have always impacted my mental health and wellbeing. I am also about as socially awkward and flawed as a human being can get, and I own up to my faults and wear my emotions on my sleeve. Despite all of my faults and challenges, I try hard to be as authentic as I can be because this is partially about my own healing process, but also about unsettling issues, culture, and problems that impact far more than just me, yet they often go unnoticed and unaddressed in systems, structures, and society. As I begun to write this post, my guiding question was: How did a fairly flawed, but healthy person who worked out regularly, was positively working on mental health issues, and was given an optimal health report from his doctor in the summer of 2014, suddenly in less than 4 years on a fast track to dying an early death? I write this post as many before it, knowing that some may take offense to it, some may disagree with it, but I have never shied away from how others view or perceive me. I wanted to share my story and experience because in academia, so much of what we do goes without critical discussion and we struggle through so many issues in isolation, which is part of the problem. We must begin talking about critical issues and supporting one another in our struggles individually and collectively.
The Difference Between Higher Education and Academia
Now, I before discussing academia, I want to make sure that I give proper credit to higher education and all the mentors, friends, and people who truly helped me to escape poverty and ultimately save my life. People often ask me if I regret getting a PhD, because of how much it cost me in many ways, and in reality, I don’t regret it at all, because it was my gateway out of poverty. Higher education in general saved my life. I think because I failed so many times before finally getting school right, I cherished the experience in a way that most never get the chance to. For many, higher education is a means to an end, but for me it was my liberation. I met amazing friends and learned from so many great mentors that I can never truly regret any of it. If not for that counselor at WCC taking a chance on me and finding funding to get me through that first year until I was in good graces with financial aid again, I think I would have probably died long before now, so in a way, I am working with house money now, even at 40. I love higher education and especially working to help others find their own pathway to liberation.
My love for higher education was based on my experience as a student, but the thing is, most students have little understanding of the culture, politics, and issues that compose what we refer to as academia. For the most part, professors try to shield students from these behind the scenes issues. My first real understanding of the difference between academia and higher education began during my time working as an adjunct professor at two universities, while I was applying for tenure track positions. During this time my eyes were opened about just how little adjunct professors were valued in academia, how they were belittled and even bullied by professors and students, and how their voice meant little in the academic culture. I also learned about the inhumane nature of academia through my experience being on the market. When you’re on the market, you apply for many positions just hoping to land that campus visit, but often times you receive no communication from employers. You don’t even get a fuck you most of the time. You are also forced to parade yourself down the assembly hall of schools at major conferences, knowing that each and every person is judging your every move. You also realize at this point that faculty and admin folks talk to one another about potential candidates “off the record”, which in most other job sectors would be considered illegal and unethical, but in academia it is part of the culture. It is during the market time, although it definitely starts in PhD programs, where you go from the philosophy of teamwork, collaboration, and collective efficacy that many latched onto in their undergraduate and graduate programs to some degree at least, to focusing on individual success and prestige. Doctoral students are often pitted against each other to prove who is the best and brightest, and with this label comes greater access to scholarship and dissertation funding, increased access to the best faculty mentors, and greater prestige which will help you land a better job and more pay. This philosophy is further perpetuated during the market process and upon landing your tenure line position. The competitive nature of academic culture is one reason that I have struggled during my time as a tenure track professor.
The Socialization Process of Academia
Looking back now, I was a bit naive about academic culture. During my first faculty meeting, I began to speak on a topic and all eyes in the room turned on me as if to say, “junior faculty are to be seen but not heard.” During this first year in academia, I had tons of challenges with colleagues, some in positions of power. During this time, some of these folks spied on my social media posts, try to get me to include them as authors on research papers from my dissertation work, and falsely accused me of saying things that I never said, or took them way out of context. This eventually led me to going back to my time honored rule of not befriending people on social media sites that I work with, even if I consider them friends. During my first year, I also faced scrutiny for being outspoken during faculty meetings and often being the voice of dissent. My first-year experience on the job, along with moving from a somewhat blue/pink state to a very red state with different cultural norms, definitely started the regression of my health and wellbeing. If not for a lone senior faculty member who quietly intervened when he saw me struggling and protected me as best he could, I would have left after one year in academia. I also had some kind colleagues from a different campus and in different departments who were there for me at various times and are some of my best friends. In hindsight though, I am not sure that it was in best interest to have remained in academia, but hindsight is always 20/20.
Luckily, my first-year struggles got better in subsequent years as I began to get to know colleagues and gain their respect through working hard in committees, producing research and publications, and providing high level teaching. I enjoy my colleagues and have developed several friendships as a result of my job, but my relationships with people is different from my relationship and perception of academia. The challenges from year 2-4 became less about interpersonal struggles and more about the overall culture and expectations of life as an academic. You see, I came into academia during a time when many schools were facing high rates of retirement. My institution and school were among them, so there were mass hirings of junior faculty members going on for several years before and after I came on board. While the rhetoric during interviews and in faculty meetings was that junior faculty need to be shielded from the highly time intensive service work demands of the school, it was impossible with such junior heavy numbers for this to be much of a reality for more than a year. By year two, I was already overloaded with committee work, leading projects, and doing my fair share of service work, and while this definitely helped me to gain the respect of my peers, it also forced me to being having to work 60 or more hours a week in order to ensure that I was still meeting research standards. In many RI institutions, annual evaluation and tenure standards operate on a 50/40/10 equation for research, teaching, and service work in terms of how each criterion is weighted. My 10% service requirement quickly turned into about 50% of my time, with teaching and students taking up another 40-50% of my time. Yet, based on the workload breakdown, research is the biggest criterion that I will be evaluated on for tenure. So, when and how does one manage to complete their research if they are always busy with service and teaching related work? Well, for me, it meant that my evenings often involved community meetings because my area of research is community practice, and my nights were spent writing until 3am, while my weekends became time for grading and prep for the next week. My workout schedule and diet quickly went out the door and was replaced with fast food, pizza, and high rates of alcohol consumption just to cope with the stress and time constraints of my academic schedule. In hindsight, I only meant to do this temporarily until I could get caught up or ahead, but the thing about academia is that you are never really ahead, never really finished, and never really good enough to take a breath, so my temporary regression in health and wellness soon became my new norm for life in academia.
As some are reading this post, they may be thinking to themselves, “academics have the easiest jobs in the world, you make a ton of money and only work 9 months a year with semester breaks off, stop complaining.” There was once a time when I also thought this to be true and for some in academia with more privilege and resources, this may in fact be true, but for many such as myself, we essentially work 12 months a year for 9 months of salary and breaks mean only that you finally have time to catch up on those stacks of paper on your desk. In fact, I have already received numerous emails from various dimensions of my employer asking me to do work related tasks during my summer months. None of it is mandatory but consider that you are a junior faculty member and someone who will be making decisions about your tenure, workload, etc. is asking you to do something; it makes it hard to say no and I always stress about it regardless of whether I agree to do the work or not. In academia, during the 9-month calendar when you are actually paid, you are so busy with service work, meetings, teaching, advising, etc. you have little time to complete research and writing. This means that on top of late nights and weekends, most of us use the summer to get caught up with our writing and research. What else is also true is that many in academia work in summer in some capacity because we can’t afford not to. We are seldom ever “off” from work anymore than any other job, except that in my case and many others, we are also working 60 or more hours during the 9-month portion of the year in addition to working in the summer for free just to keep up with the standards and demands of the academy.
Standards and Demands
The standards and demands of academia vary from place to place, but they all pretty much suck. In my case, the explicit demands and expectations on paper aren’t overly lofty upon first glance, but there is a lot of vagueness to evaluation and tenure standards in most places, so it often leaves your evaluation and tenure up to the subjective opinions of people who may or may not like you from year to year and to the politics of the school and institution. Additionally, you can be granted tenure by your institution, but if your external reviews come back mediocre, you will have little to no leverage when it comes to promotion pay. Luckily for me, I feel like I am luck in the regard that people have been fair to me in evaluations, but the thing is: if you produce a ton of articles in one year because you got a little lucky, you screw yourself in other years, because people expect that you either maintain productivity or raise it from year to year, even if your baseline was already higher than the standards. What is also true is that in academia, you can go from being the kick ass Rockstar and darling of the ball in one year based on your productivity and contributions to feeling like a complete and utter failure the next, because in a publish or perish environment, it’s always about what have you done for me lately, not what have you done for me over time. The psychological and emotional toll that this places on junior faculty is immense and this pressure definitely led me to allowing myself to forget about my own health and wellbeing because I felt extreme pressure to produce, produce, produce.
The other issues with academia, especially social work, is that we are obsessed with rubrics, impact factors, and quantitative means of assessing an individual’s worth to the school and profession. While the quantifying of someone’s worth is supposed to make evaluations and tenure less subjective, it ultimately dehumanizes people, pits colleagues against each other, and seldom truly captures the true worth of someone’s contributions. Interesting enough, some stem fields and other disciplines that are considered more rigorous and demanding have left rubrics behind a long time ago. Consider that in many hard sciences, someone may work for years to make even a modest or minor contribution through research, simply because of the standards of hard sciences, engineering, etc. Those fields tend to understand that failures are part of success and are in fact contributions. Some even have evaluation processes that allow faculty members to submit their own rationale for productivity for the year, along with a projected agenda for the next year. Impact factors and other analytics used in evaluations and tenure considerations are simply another attempt to frame subjective criteria as objective facts regarding a faculty member’s productivity and impact as a scholar. I know amazing faculty who contribute more to the knowledge base of the profession through their community work, social media channels, press, and public speaking engagements than most faculty will ever accomplish via publishing in high impact professional journals that few people read or can access. The quantification of worth in academic culture, especially social work, must change for the wellbeing of all of u.
External Academia Pressures
The pressures and workload of academia extends beyond the walls of your institution. You are expected to serve on professional boards, conduct time intensive reviews of scholarly articles, and join academic organizations that cost a shitload of money. Why do any of it you might say? Well, academia is all about politics and relationships. If you don’t join boards or participate in professional service (Again, this falls under that 10% of my workload I discussed previously), you will not have the professional networks to make it very far on the job market post tenure. Post-tenure positions often come partially by who you know and more importantly who your prospective employer knows that also knows you. In terms of the cost of academic organizations, this is all part of the dog and pony show of academia. Conferences serve two purposes for most academics: either you’re on the market or you’re there to drink a lot of wine and engage in the snobbery and gossip that has become a major part of academic conference culture. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but I am generalizing how it all feels to me. If you don’t pay to play at the conferences or join the organizations, you will suffer on the market and professionally. Conference presentations typically count in annual evaluations and there is an expectation that you will be there, or people will take notice. The pressures and stress of the external parts of academic life have definitely contributed to my health challenges.
Another aspect to academia is that many folks have a false perception that academics are rich or at least well off by most standards. What folks don’t realize is the vast disparity in academic salaries based on discipline, gender, race, prestigious, etc. I will own first and foremost that I am a white man and my issues with pay in academia are not nearly as bad as persons of color, women, women of color, those working at smaller schools, adjunct professors, and many in the humanities. I can say that most of us aren’t making the 6 figure salaries that elite business and engineering schools pay out and most of us have high levels of debt. In social work, there is no significant pay differential between MSW social workers and PhD academics, but many of us with PhDs have far more debt and larger loan payments. It is also true that in most employment sectors, you are rewarded for your accomplishments and years of service with pay raises, but in academia, many med-level faculty make less than newly hired faculty and tenure raises vary greatly by institution, discipline, and prestigious level. I make 10-15K less than people just hired in my school, despite my hard work and consistent success. Unless you have a union, good luck getting COLA increases or merit raises. My salary which was decent four years ago is already obsolete. The financial stress of paying back 200,000 in student loans forces many of us, myself included, to have to teach way more classes than required, which subsequently cuts into our research time, and compounded with the high service demands keeps the cycle going every year. Unless you have the privilege of having not had to accrue so much student loan debt, have family support, work for a more lucrative discipline, or have a partner who has a high paying job, you will constantly be under financial stress in academia and this stress makes it sometimes seem like you are working 24/7 but never getting ahead and their seems to be no relief in sight much of the time. This has definitely impacted my health because stress is a major factor in all of my physical health ailments and mental health challenges.
Self-Care in Academia
While much of my post can likely apply to most of academia, there are certain aspects about the norms and culture of schools of social work that are important to note. In social work, we often teach and preach about something called “self-care”, which accounts to little more than putting the full burden of wellness on the individual and if you fail to attain it, it will be used against you. You will hear things like, “what is your self-care plan?” “Sounds like you need to practice more self-care”, but what nobody wants to acknowledge, or address is the systemic and cultural norms within schools of social work that hinder or prevent self-care for many students, staff, and faculty. In academia, if you do really well at leading committees and doing service work, often because others have not done their fair share or are focusing on research and grant writing, your reward is more work piled onto an already overflowing plate. If and when you muster up the courage to say, “I really can’t take that task on right now”, you are met with comments like, “well, we are all overwhelmed and overworked”. “well, you know you are on a tenure line and this is the sort of thing that people will judge you on”, or you will simply receive that look of disdain from your boss or colleague for not being willing to step up and take something else on, which will leave you wondering if it will come back to haunt you or not, so you end up just saying yes to more work the majority of the time, just to avoid coming across as lazy, not committed, or not a team player. The stress and emotional toll of this part of the academic culture is why someone like me could so easily stray away from caring about their own wellbeing and health.
The Challenges of Being a Community Scholar and Researcher
This dimension of my academic struggles and stress is not going to be experienced by everyone and if anything, the labels that we apply to people are a big part of the problem that pits us against one another. With this said however, there is a difference between qualitative and qualitative research from a time perspective and the time investment is even greater when you are emphasizing deep level community work. In doing community-engaged and participatory research, I work with community partners to establish program-based interventions that seek to bring about positive changes in the lives of community members. Simply to get to the research element of the work takes me anywhere from 2-4 years of working alongside and with communities so that they trust me enough to collaborate with me on research projects. This is a major issue when it comes to publications and meeting evaluation and tenure standards. I am submitting for tenure next spring and am just now analyzing preliminary data on my primary research in communities. If not for other projects and ingenuity, I would be SOL for meeting standards in most places. In order to do community work, I often have to make myself available after hours and on some weekends, which again extends me into 60 or more-hour weeks sometimes. Schools never fully understand community work even when they try to. People love to showcase my work when it comes to year end reports that are used to illustrate community contributions, especially as we attempt to get the all-important Carnegie classification for community engagement, but when it comes to funding my work, I have been rejected every year from university entities. Despite being nominated for a research award by colleagues that I actually won, the university itself still rejected my summer research proposal. I truly appreciate my colleagues for their support, but most are so entrenched in academic culture that they often don’t see the forest beyond the trees, or they simply do not have the power to change much, which is often the case for departments and units that are not freestanding in universities. My thoughts are not meant to disparage those within my unit who have attempted to support my work, because I do feel like my work is respected and valued by colleagues, but I often have to work twice as hard as a community-engaged scholar to hit academic expectations, compared to someone doing more traditional research. This is not to slight anyone’s research agenda, only that the continued apples to oranges comparison is problematic and stressful.
Moving Forward and Fighting to Live
I want folks to realize that I am not blaming academia, my employer, or anyone entirely for my health choices and challenges, but it is hard not to look at the baseline of my health prior to starting a tenure line position with where I am at now, and one of the big independent variables is academia and the other is Oklahoma. What I realized in the days since hearing my doctor’s words of warning and dread is that I am not the same self-destructive young adult anymore. I am strong, I am angry, and I am determined to not die young as did my mom and other family members. I am not a diet person and I flat out refuse to consider bariatric surgery, for myself, because of the cost and new research out about it. I am about making tweaks without sacrificing comfort and enjoyment, and for me food provides both. I also have to change things in my own life to reduce stress levels, which impacts or exasperates all of my health issues. I cannot always figure out everything for everyone. I can’t fix other people or solve their problems. I also decided that I will not allow academia to claim my health. I will no longer slave away all summer for free. I am unwilling to work nights and weekends just to keep afloat. I am not going to allow the school to pile on service work as I have in the past when it is only 10% of my job. I am not responding to work related tasks this summer. I am not going to extra functions or events that take place in the evening and weekends without being able to reduce my time working during the week. I am no longer going to worry about tenure or how many articles I have this year. Maybe I will have a couple and maybe I won’t, and I will just have to deal with the consequences of it. I can’t always be in charge of figuring out how to fix problems that are not mine to fix. I need folks who I have helped by bringing them into collaborations and publications to consider bringing me in on some in order to help balance my work which is heavy in lead author and sole author pieces, and I need people to realize that while my changes will seem selfish in some ways, I am being selfish in order to save my life, and I don’t know any other way to do it. For those who have reached out to me with kind words, or have brought me into collaborations and publications, I am eternally grateful to you, because for me it’s not about products or tangible forms of help, but about the kindness and support behind your efforts.
In the intermediate and long-term, I have to get out of Oklahoma and possibly out of academia, or at least find a place where I can find better balance in my professional and personal life. For those in academia, consider your own health before it’s too late. We must consider how to better change policies to help retain and support the wellbeing of faculty in academic settings. We have to stop pitting faculty members against one another, or putting disciplines and schools against each other, micro folks against macro folks, research institutions against teaching focused ones. We all have to come together in academia and begin a movement to bring about major changes to our climate and culture. Those with power and prestige must put themselves out in front and others must show courage to push back against unrealistic expectations, marginalizing culture, and inequity in pay and support. We also need to stop trying to quantify a person’s worth or impact as an educator, scholar, and colleague, because the measures used are too subjective, and all it does is breed competition between colleagues who should be collaborating with one another. After all, what are we competing for? It’s not like any of us are getting merit raises these days. We must fight not only for the preservation of higher education, our families, our students, and our society; we must fight to preserve our own wellbeing, because if we don’t care about ourselves, academia will never care about the damage or harm we endure.
Today I woke up like most Sundays and went about my usual day of preparing myself for the busy week ahead. I took care of household chores, prepared for classes, and attempted to talk myself into going through another week of my privileged life. #PrivilegedProblems I know, but Sundays have always been a day that I wish I could just avoid. Since I was a child, Sundays always were a major source of depression and anxiety. When I was younger Sundays meant the fallout from another weekend of either dealing with the trauma of violence, substance abuse, and mental illness, or dealing with overcoming the anxiety about what might happen, regardless of whether anything actually did or not. In my early 20s, Sunday Morning Coming down by award winning Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson was a true to life ballet of my life coming down from a weekend of raves, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Sunday was the residue of self-hatred, depression, and the damage done. In some ways though, I was more alive in my worst state back then than on my best day in this era of my life. What happened to the dreams of escaping it all? What happened to the trips? What happened to that road trip me and my best friend were planning to take across the country in our early 20s?
In another time, I would have said that it’s important to work hard today so you can play hard tomorrow. Most of my decisions to go back to school had everything to do with not wanting to be working my fingers to the bone in a dead-end job just to barely get by and eventually die an early death. I thought I understood the way to a better life, a way to earn greater privilege and with that would come better outcomes. But then one day you wake up on a Sunday and realize that you still feel the same anxiety, depression, self-hatred, and other feelings you did 30 years ago. You wake up and realize that your life may be more privileged, but in reality, what was actually better? I realized that on my way through my education and awakening process, I actually fell asleep again. I was still working just to pay bills, still talking about taking that road trip, still planning to have those grand experiences after the next mountain top of my career, and still dreading Sundays because come Monday morning, I would be throwing up 8 times before I walk into the school of social work simply due to anxiety and dread. Will someone ask me to do something else, even though they know I am already overwhelmed? Will I disappoint someone else? Will I receive another rejection? Will my class go well, or will I fall flat on my face? All of these issues race through my head most every Sunday, but more than anything, I just have a brief window to consider whether this is the life I really want, and usually Monday rolls around before I can answer the question.
One of the things I realized today was that with privilege comes fear. Not fear over whether the rent will get paid, or you will have enough food to eat, remember that I am speaking to #privilegedProblems, but when you come from where I do, those thoughts still cross your mind even years after getting a PhD or missing a meal. No, the fear that I am speaking of is about taking chances, it’s about being scared of your credit score falling, or your professional reputation being tarnished, or that you might not get promotion. It’s about allowing those fears to stop you from taking that trip, going on vacation, taking the weekend off, or making a major life choice. I think back to the early writing of Marx, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, King’s Letters from Birmingham Jail, Mandela’s memoirs and it strikes me that all of these individuals found a form of freedom in themselves or others that most people with far greater levels of privilege never experience in their entire life. Is it true that someone could live to be 100 and have died many painful deaths without having ever truly lived? Is it possible that those who have their lives cut short should not be seen as tragedies but as success stories? When I was younger I often did outrageous things that could have and should have killed me, but I also was quick to do enjoyable things like leave last minute to go camping, head up north into the woods, take a random day off work, and simply never be all that scared about the consequences. Yes, some of that is developmental, but some of it is circumstantial. I have often remarked that higher education killed the best part of my creative and reflective soul. It killed the musician, songwriter, poet, and storyteller in me and replaced it with a scholarship producing machine that writes and writes without ever really saying anything of substance at all. The demons have never really gone away, I have simply learned to quiet them enough to appear to have a certain level of functioning, but in reality, I am still haunted by most of them. When I was a young man those demons drove me to take risks and chances that I probably would not take today, but in some of those moments and acts, I felt more alive for a moment than I have in the past decade of my life. I have done everything that I was supposed to do, achieved things that some said were unobtainable, but still I feel like I stopped living a long time ago and now I am simply enjoying a privileged life that isn’t really privileged enough to be able to stop and smell the roses, but instead it is privileged enough to scare me every day that it could be taken away from me, and therefore it has become my own prison. “The only thing worse than dying is dying a little more each and every day.” – shane r. brady
On the eve of the greatest rivalry in all the land, I read Jake Butt’s, senior tight end at Michigan, story of how he went from being a lifelong Buckeye into becoming a Michigan man, as did his entire family. There are numerous stories like this from many Michigan players over the years. While I never played a down in the Big House, I too consider myself a Michigan man, and on the eve of the greatest rivalry in all of sports, I wanted to share my tale and interpretation of what it means to be a Michigan Man.
People don’t like the elitism of the Michigan Man moniker, not to mention it is a bit sexist, but I still can’t help but love it. I grew up down the road in the projects of Ypsilanti, MI, home of Eastern Michigan University, and watched Michigan every Saturday afternoon growing up. No matter how poor we were or what are social condition was at the time, which was often on the verge of having the lights cut off or being evicted, my mom and I would always gather in front of the TV on Saturday to watch the likes of Rick Leach, Mike Jolly, Anthony Carter, Jim Harbaugh, Jamie Morris, Mark Messner, Desmond Howard, Chris Hutchinson, Derrick Alexander, Tyrone Wheatley, Ty Law, Amani Toomer, and Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Years later, I would fall in love with the likes of Charles Woodson, Ian Gold (One of good friends in high school), Brian Griese, Jon Jansen, Sam Sword, Tai Streets, Tom Brady, Anthony Thomas, Larry Foote, Braylon Edwards, Jake Long, and Denard Robinson. For 3 hours every week, my mom and I got to forget about our struggles, and enjoy a football game. I have pictures going all the way back in my life, and I never wore any other colors than maize and blue. Now, my mom and I also loved some Tiger’s baseball and always watched the Lions on Thanksgiving, but there was just something special about Michigan football. I always dreamed of one day going to Michigan, and when I got accepted to UofM-Dearborn in 1996, I felt like my dream was almost there, even if I wasn’t exactly playing quarterback at the Big House or even taking classes in Ann Arbor; however, at least I was going to receive a diploma from the University of Michigan..or at least that’s what I thought at the time.
For a variety of reasons that I won’t dive into in this post, I essentially flunked out of the University of Dearborn in 1996, after completing only one semester. I had a lot of challenges back then, which many of my students can relate to now, because they are challenges associated with being poor. On top of socio-economic challenges, I was also ill prepared to succeed at a university level, which is what my academic advisor told me in her office after she told me that I would be given no withdrawals for the semester, and would essentially have 5 Fs’ on my transcript. I left that meeting angry, hurt, and mad at the world. I hated Michigan in the subsequent weeks, but nonetheless, when the fall rolled around again, there I was glued to my TV rooting on the maize and blue as I always had my entire life; after all, I knew no other team and no other way. When you grow up poor or working class in the Rust Belt, you don’t have a whole lot of beautiful distractions in your life. At that point in my life, I was working in a factory or steel foundry, or one of the many other brutal jobs that I took back then to make it. No matter how hard the weeks and hours, I always looked forward to football Saturdays, we all did, for many of us, it got us through the week.
By the time that the summer of 2003 came around, I was seven years removed from being in college. My dreams of ever graduating from college, let alone Michigan, were fading as quickly as the long summer days. Despite not thinking much about college, I was fairly content at the time. I was working as a maintenance technician and had a steady girlfriend, whom ironically was a student at Michigan. Life was pretty good, until one day out of the blue, she told me that she couldn’t see me anymore. She said that she was struggling to see a long-term future with a maintenance man. She was from a well to do Catholic family and it probably didn’t help that I wasn’t Catholic or from a well off family. In retrospect though, she made the best decision for her life, and my heartbreak was the beginning of my transformation. Within a week or two of the break-up, I left my maintenance job and enrolled in a nearby community college for human services, a long cry from my dreams of graduating a Michigan man, but at least I was back in a classroom.
For whatever reason, I began to excel at school again, I found mentors, and hit my stride. Sometimes anger is destructive, and sometimes it is exactly what is needed to propel yourself forward in life. I went from being sorry for myself and giving up to creating a new metaphor of “me against the world”, and that metaphor still drives me today. I graduated from the community college in 2006 and from Eastern Michigan University with my BS in social work in 2007 Summa Cum Laude. I received scholarship offers from some of the most prestigious schools in the country, yet there was only one school that I wanted to hear back from, only one school that would quench more than ten years of bitterness from my tastebuds, and only one school that would help me come full circle and redeem myself. I finally got tired of waiting to hear back from Michigan and e-mailed the associate dean to plead my case one last time. Within a day, I received word back from him; Congratulations, you have been accepted to the University of Michigan Graduate Social Work Program and awarded the equivalent of a full ride scholarship. No matter how many times I read the letter, I couldn’t believe it. I would be given the privilege of a second chance, a second chance to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a Michigan man.
I started back to Michigan in 20o7, the last year Lloyd Carr Coached the team. Michigan went 9-4 that year, a good year for most teams, but not for the winningest program in the country. Little did I know at the time, just as I was beginning to realize my full potential and redemption as a man, my beloved football team would begin one of the toughest stretches in school history, which included a loss to division II Appalachian State, three different coaches, and losing records. Throughout this tough stretch, I never stopped watching, I never stopped rooting every Saturday, and I dug even deeper to understand the meaning behind being a Michigan Man. I did eventually graduate from Michigan, Summa Cum Laude, and was selected to give a speech at commencements. It was the first time my mom ever saw me graduate anything, and it was one of the last steps in my redemption. I even gave a shout out to my old counselor at UofM-Dearborn, and somewhere inside me, I heard the words of my ex finally being silenced. After graduating from Michigan, I pursued and attained my doctoral degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, a school that loved basketball, and didn’t even have a football team; the irony of it all. During my time in Richmond, I connected with the Michigan Alumni Club and watched the games with them every Saturday at a sports pub in town. These were tough times to be a Michigan fan, but it was during these times that I realized that being a Michigan man wasn’t about football or sports, and it wasn’t just about winning and losing. Just as I finally rewrote my own narrative, I realized what Yost and Schembechler meant by the term Michigan Man, or at least it is what I like to believe it means. Being a Michigan man or woman means that you are loyal to your school. It means that you don’t move away and root for other college football teams. It means that in the good years and lean years, you stand by and support your team. It also means that you have integrity in how you carry yourself. Michigan football players graduate at some of the highest rates in all of college football. Michigan players major in communications, but they also major in chemistry, engineering, political science, and even social work. Michigan players spend their off days at Mott Children’s Hospital giving something back to the community. Michigan players hold each other accountable from the number one player to number 110. Michigan players always come back again and again. Michigan coaches know that they have the best job in the entire country. In my own journey to become a Michigan man, I had to overcome adversity. I had to get knocked down and get back up again. Along the way, I had to experience some of the biggest lows in my life, but when I stood in front of the faculty and student body in 2008 to deliver my speech and later when I attained my PhD, largely because Michigan had prepared me for it, I felt on top of the world. For a poor kid who grew up 15 minutes down the road from the Big House, but thousands of miles away from the privilege of the University of Michigan, graduating from UofM was my national championship and Heisman trophy all rolled up in one. When I was asked to come back and teach after completing coursework for my doctorate, I didn’t feel like an adjunct professor, I felt like a Michigan man. During my time teaching at Michigan, I was privileged to mentor many student athletes, some of them football players. I also mentored even more first generation college students, who are now finishing their own doctoral programs and writing their own narratives of redemption.
So where is this Michigan Man now? I am a college professor at the University of Oklahoma, another big football school. Who do I root for you ask? Who do I love? Well, on football Fridays when the entire university is decked out in Sooner red, I can be found in my maize and blue. Despite people requesting that I refrain from wearing another school’s colors to faculty meetings and university events (this is a true story), I still adorn the maize and blue. You see, being a Michigan man isn’t about football or sports, nor does it have to be about some sort of brash arrogance. Being a Michigan man is about loyalty, about community, about integrity, and about getting back up again when you get knocked down. On the eve of the biggest game in 20 years for the University of Michigan, against Ohio, I am filled with anticipation. We are underdogs in the game, but for some reason, I think this makes it all the better. Michigan men aren’t defined by one game, win or lose, because if this was the case, I wouldn’t be here today nor would the Wolverines be on the brink of a national championship. Michigan men and women are made in the trenches, they are built from enduring challenges, and through it all, they never waver in their commitment and loyalty to the Michigan family or to the greatest football team in all the land. In the words of 575,000 current Michigan men and women, along with the ghosts of Yost, Fritz, Bump, and Bo, along with many more:
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan
the leaders and best.
The Election of Donald Trump: What does it Mean for America, the Political System, and the Democratic Party?
The results are in, the polls and projections were way off, and the democratic party wakes up today in its worst political state in more than two decades. The democrats not only lost the presidency, which they thought was a foregone conclusion victory, but also did not take over the Senate, so now the government is republican controlled, which will consequently impact the make-up of the highest court. Overall it could not have gone any worse for the democratic party, but as with anything, proponents of the party can choose to levy blame and sulk in the loss felt today, or use this day to begin reinventing the party, organizing, and working towards 2020, but it must start today. This election did not end in the same way that President Obama’s 2008 election did, with a joyous celebratory quality in the air among us, but instead, the air is filled with tension, fear, and discontent, which are all the reasons that led to Trump winning this election.
Donald Trump won the election for president of the United States, and many are wondering how this could have happened. If the democratic party is going to rise again, which it surely will, it must begin doing some hard inward analysis of what went wrong in 2016. Here are some hard and fast reasons that Trump won the election:
Who helped elect Trump?
Trump focused much of his campaign on working class white voters, many of them in rust belt states and middle America. These voters largely felt ignored and disrespected by Clinton and others within the democratic party. This voting block displaced educated independents who have predicted the past two decades of presidential elections. These are the folks who have not benefited from Obama Care, who blame international trade policies for the decline in American manufacturing, and whom regardless of what numbers say in terms of economic growth and prosperity in the U.S., feel as though they are still struggling to meet basic needs.
Angry unsatisfied Americans, many of them among working class whites, but college educated white voters came out to vote for Trump in higher numbers than was expected. Additionally, more than any voting group, those 6 million plus who once came out to support President Obama, but did not come out to support Clinton, helped Trump win the election. Now, the worst thing the democratic party can do is point the finger at any of these groups for why the party lost the election, because this is exactly why these blocks did not support Clinton. People are pissed off for a variety of reasons, which led many of them to originally vote for Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but at the end of the day, even if their reasons for being pissed off and ideologies differ, these groups of voters each played a role in electing Donald Trump to office, and while we can be upset, in fact we should be, we must figure out a way to reconnect with these groups that the democratic party isolated during this election.
Who did not help elect Clinton?
The division in America was well documented throughout the election cycle, but instead of running a progressive and proactive political campaign, Clinton’s camp banked on voters of color, primarily African-Americans and Latinx voters, coming out in mass waves to the polls out of fear that Trump could be elected, rather than because she championed their needs and causes. While Clinton definitely won the vote from these two voter groups, neither African-Americans or Latinx voters came out in the numbers that Clinton needed and depended on for a victory, which is likely due to the impact of social unrest in the country, and overall disenfranchisement many persons of color felt for the U.S. political system. The numbers just didn’t come close to equalizing the working class white vote, or the 6 million missing votes. The democratic party must acknowledge that while persons of color may not have supported Donald Trump, many of them also did not support Hillary Clinton, in fact, many have lost total faith in the political system and process.
Additionally, many people felt as though Hillary Clinton’s relationship to former president Bill Clinton would translate to people equating her prospective presidency to having the former President Clinton back in office. Firstly, few people saw Hillary Clinton as being synonymous with the policies and politics of Bill Clinton, and secondly, Bill Clinton’s shine as one of the most popular presidents of all time has waned in recent years for a variety of reasons, but mainly because many people view his neoliberal policies as looking good at the time short-term, but not nearly as good 15 or twenty years removed.
Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump?
While many democrats, conservatives, and independent voters view Trump’s comments and actions throughout the campaign as offensive, misogynistic, racist, and generally inappropriate, democrats refused to look beyond Trump’s frame of Americans’ concerns at the deeper meaning behind them. Americans overwhelmingly support foreign policy that is pragmatic and isolationist in nature. Very few people believe the U.S. should be involved in conflicts in other parts of the world, or that the U.S. should be the military for other countries who lack military capacity or the will to create it. Trump’s foreign policy was always rated as one of his greatest assets, even by nonpartisan experts.
Trump’s use of racist and xenophobic terminology to describe Mexican Americans, African-Americans, and Arab Americans was off color, off base, and offensive to many, but what the democrats failed to understand is that many Americans feel like our immigration policy is to lapse compared to other nations. In fact, the current U.S. policy on immigration is considerably more lapse than Canada, Mexico, and many other nations around the world. Trump appealed to Americans who do not want everyone to be welcome into the country, and while we can argue for or against that ideology, the democratic party lost votes in this area that it must consider this moving forward.
Trump is a business man and will likely bring a fiscally conservative, but pragmatic economic policy to Washington. Trump’s policies will likely not be more successful than President Obama or former President Clinton, but working class people who are struggling, along with small businesses, perceive Trump as someone who will help build up the domestic economy and restrict international trade. Again, this is the perception and likely not the reality, but democrats, in part, ran a platform based heavily on the need to emphasize international trade, which strategically was not an effective platform. While the U.S. has seen some major turn arounds under President Obama, we also must be careful with reading too much into these statistics. Many working class people may be employed as a result of the President’s policies, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t under employed, working longer hours, or are still struggling mightily, especially in rural America and rustbelt states. Additionally, people who do have wealth and even people in my income bracket as a college professor will see somewhat significant tax breaks from Trump’s plan, and while many may not feel comfortable voicing out loud that they wouldn’t mind having more disposable income, even if it comes at the expense of social welfare programs, education, and other needed resources, they are the traditional backbone of the republican party, and likely went out and voted for Trump.
What does Trump’s election mean for the future of the United States?
As the election results were coming in last night, I saw a flood of social media posts claiming the election of Trump was akin to the second coming of Hitler. I think people are overreacting some in their analysis of the election. While things will undoubtedly change over the next four years under Trump, it is doubtful that we will end up in a nuclear war or see a total implosion in the U.S. system of governance. Our system for all of his hinderance to achieving radical social change was designed for just such an occasion. Our system of checks and balances was created to ensure that one person could not have ultimate control over the country. Now, the worst loss of the night was the missed opportunity for the democrats to gain control of the senate, and the republican majority will likely mean that the supreme court will shift further to the right, but despite all of this, America will survive as will the democratic party; the question remains, will we learn from it? Have we learned something beyond the hurt and fear that many are experiencing today? Did we learn what we need to do in order to be successful in the future? What we must do to be successful in the future?
What do I do now with Trump as my new President?
While most of us did not foresee a Trump presidency nor did we want one, it is a reality that we all must live with for at least the next four years. While Trump is not whom we wanted, he is not the worst person who could be in office, many people believed that Cruz was a much scarier prospect for president than Trump. Trump is a business man who also understands his limited political knowledge, so he will surround himself with people, albite highly conservative people, that he trusts to make key decisions. He will run the country similar to a corporation in terms of efficiency, and while that may not be the preferred way for many of us, I don’t think it will be as horrific as some believe it will be. Secondly, for all those packing their bags to move to another country, good luck doing so, immigrating to other countries is much more difficult than most people realize, and is generally an action reserved for the most privileged and educated persons, not the average American. So what can you do? Take the next day or two to mourn, meditate, pray, or whatever else you do for self care, but then let’s begin the critical analysis of what went wrong. Before we can start organizing in our communities, and begin considering who to promote as a viable progressive democratic candidate for the next presidential election, as well as whom we want to support for congressional elections, state level elections, and local elections, we must plan a new strategy. I am seeing all of these posts of protests and calls for organizing and action, but here’s the thing; who are we protesting? What are we organizing? What is the aim of our actions? Nothing we do changes whom the president is, so if we are thinking ahead, great, but we need a better plan of action. There is a great deal of work to do in the days ahead of us.
Where does the democratic party go from here?
This is the most important question that all progressives, democrats, and leftists should embrace today, well maybe tomorrow, since everyone deserves at least one day to mourn a loss. The reality is that many democrats, after mourning, will begin to levy blame to any and everyone. Many democrats will likely blame millennials, Berniecrats, third party voters, racism, sexism, non-voters, etc. for what happened during this election, but what I hope happens at some point within the democratic party and other progressive spaces, is that people will analyze missed opportunities, disconnects from major portions of the population, and new ways to innovate, build bridges, brand, and organize better in order to create a better more progressive democratic party. Some decisions that the democratic party must consider moving forward includes:
- Has the party moved to far away from the leftist liberal ideologies that once were the brand of the party?
- How does the party reconnect with persons of color and working class whites, two major historical groups the party has depended on for victories, or maybe better yet, how does the party bridge the difference between these two groups in order to promote solidarity within the party?
- The where and how of community organizing strategy and tactics must be deeply assessed before the next election. Clinton may have once been a follower of Alinsky, but she failed miserably as a community organizer in this campaign. While many supporters used social media to levy put downs, name call, and preach, this was not the effective use of social media that President Obama implemented in 2008. Obama maximized social media to be more personable to voters, as a means to mobilize communities, create progressive spaces, raise money, and get the word out. Supporters were encouraged to promote issues and focus on the positives that Obama would bring to the office of president as opposed to implementing a strategy of negativity. Clinton also did not levy anywhere near the boots on the ground grassroots campaign that President Obama did when he was first elected, and instead relied on elite events, gatherings, and the organizing skills of supporters in key states, as opposed to local level organizing. In fact, Trump was a better grassroots organizer than Clinton in this election. Finally, while Obama partnered with democratic nominees for congress in key states to help promote their campaigns as well as his own, Clinton did not use this tactic nearly as much, and it showed in key senate and house races.
- For those who were Bernie Sanders supporters or whom feel left of the democratic party, do you use this election as motivation to organize and mobilize around making it more viable for a third party candidate to get elected? Or do you accept that this is highly unlikely under the current system, the system is unlikely to change in favor of this over the next four years, and thus become more closely aligned with the mainstream party in order to ensure a democratic president is elected next time around?
- Consider the legitimacy of Bernie Sanders or a similar candidate. In retrospect, Sanders looks like a much better candidate, and for good reason, given that he would have likely cut way into Trump’s working class white vote, and would have probably won the election or at least came closer than Clinton.
While it may be true that many of us are simply going through the motions today, feeling like we awoke to a nightmare this morning with the election of Donald Trump as President and a republican stranglehold on government, we must persist onward with our lives, as this is ultimately where most of us will affect the most change. We must not willingly accept a society or political system that promotes racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice, but we must acknowledge that what we have been doing with intellectual persuasion, social media shaming, preaching to the choir, and distancing ourselves from the other has not been effective for bridging difference in America. Social movements are great, but they often operate outside the status quo and political process, and do not always heavily influence politics as much as what we would like to believe. Finally, we must not crawl into our perpetual holes, because four years will come sooner than you think, and we also must not forget that almost yearly, we can affect change at the organizational, local, and state levels through exercising our collective voice and taking action. Yes we need social movements and social action more now than ever before in our history, but we also need political advocacy across every level and system, and it must begin today by learning from mistakes made this time around, ok, maybe tomorrow.
This post is my attempt to begin to voice my challenges that I have experienced as a professional, most recently as an academic. Many people may assume that I have no problem speaking my mind based on my posts and personality, but those who know me best, know that I am very introverted, non-confrontational, and often get my feelings hurt. Below, is a list of some of the things that frustrate me beyond belief, and that I struggle with in the workplace.
- Not adhering to due dates: Whether formal or informal due dates, I have always strived to meet deadlines. I have never asked for an extension, have never missed a hard due date, and generally complete work ahead of time. While I understand that people have “different working styles”, I adhere to due dates for my own mental health and self-care, and when someone ignores due dates, it not only screws up my work schedule, it jeopardizes my wellness. When you don’t finish something by an agreed upon date, you send my very full work professional schedule out of control. I have had more issues with people not adhering to due dates for articles, committee work, projects, grants, etc. in academia than in any other arena of my career.
- Not pulling your weight: So, you agree to work on an article or project, and you want the credit, but don’t have the time? Do your colleague a favor and don’t accept it. It only leads to work/life strain, because if you don’t do your fair share on an article or project, the other person or people must do extra work that they did not anticipate doing, which impacts other work assignments they have to complete. I have written articles thinking that I would have way more help than I ever received, and when it’s not reciprocated back, it leads to resentment.
- Grudges: Look, we might disagree at a faculty meeting or about the frame of an article, but when you don’t talk to me for the next 3 weeks or longer, because I hurt your feelings, and you want to teach me some sort of lesson, it benefits nothing, and just makes me think twice about ever working with you in the future.
- Overburdening me with busy work: So, you say that you want me to head this committee or take leadership on X.Y, or Z because you know I will do the work, adhere to deadlines, and do it well, and because the next person won’t do it. Well, what you are really doing is penalizing me for working hard, while reinforcing other colleagues poor time management and workplace values. Instead, talk with those who you can’t depend on about this issue, and help build their capacity and sense of responsibility by giving them tasks to do.
- Keeping me busy with incidental time intensive tasks without any real power: So, I am on 8 committees, heading up several task groups, but I have exactly 0 decision making power. You say that you are saving me work by not putting me on the “major committees” or since I am not “tenured”, I can’t be on decision making committees, but I am doing the time intensive work for all of your major committees, without having the benefit of an increased voice or power position.
- Telling me what to do: If the provost, dean, or even director tells me to do something, I will likely do it as they are my superiors. As a senior faculty member, program director, etc. you are not my boss, so stop giving me orders. Frame things as a request, and I will likely go out of my way to help you, but stop giving orders.
- Stop the weekend, after hours, and vacation e-mail requests: I need to get better at this one myself, but I never expect people to respond to e-mails during off time. Why do people send e-mail requests when I am not being paid? No summer e-mails asking me to do something for free, no weekend request for a last minute emergency task that will fill up my weekend.
- Stop all the workplace “Solicitation”: I find it uncomfortable to get 10 requests to donate for school funders for people’s kiddos, scouts, or sports teams. No, I don’t want to pledge to walk 1000 miles with the staff this year, I am ok with being fat, Maybe if I wasn’t covering my work duties and yours’, I would have time for health and wellness. I don’t want to sign birthday, graduation, and wedding cards every day for people I barely know. I don’t want to donate for another gift. I am also paying back 6 figure student loans, and many people have big families, so let’s limit how much employee giving we do each year, or at least don’t guilt me, when I don’t give to the annual canned food or adopt a family drive. We all give in different ways, and I choose to give my money and time to different causes.
- Stop all the not-mandated, but mandated functions: Stop with all the holiday parties, end of the term parties, mixers, after work socials, etc. that you say aren’t mandatory, but you guilt faculty/employees into feeling that they mandatory. I have GAD and Major Depression, and it takes everything out of me some days just to go to work, please don’t guilt me into attending events outside of my normal schedule.
- When I need help, stop pointing me to a website or 300 page manual: Folks, I love technology, but websites and online manuals do not replace training or mentorship. Usually, by the time I bring a question to someone, it’s because I am super frustrated and have tried to find it in the same places that you have sent me to without success. What I need more than anything is for someone to help me find the answer or tell me the answer if they know it.
- Stop with all the meetings: Not everything requires a meeting. Have a purpose for the meetings that you do have, and please come prepared for them. If you’re heading up a committee, send out an agenda ahead of time, if you’re supposed to bring something to the meeting, do your homework and bring it.
- Learn to take Cues from Colleagues: Assertive people always say, you need to be more direct or more assertive, or learn to say no, but not everyone is wired like that. Learn to take subtle cues. For instance, when I say that I have a ton of grading to do, three revise and resubmits to do, and a wedding to attend, please don’t ask me to do something else; i am trying to tell you that I am overwhelmed in my own way.
- Just because we are colleagues does not mean we must be friends: I tend to prefer keeping my personal life and professional life separate, so please don’t take offense if I don’t accept your friend request on Facebook, attend your kiddos’ birthday party, or want to hangout after work with you. It’s nothing personal, but from my experience, I prefer to keep roles and boundaries clear.
- Pick-Up after yourself: It seems like the higher you move up in career, the more people forget their manners. I can’t tell you how many colleagues leave dirty dishes in the sink, let food explode in the microwave, and just leave clutter all over the place with no regard for the hardworking janitorial staff or their colleagues.
- I am not you, stop with all the unsolicited advice: I get it, you’re going to retire soon and at that generativity stage of your career. You have good intentions and want to stop me from making mistakes that maybe you made. You have been around a long time, and want to protect the culture of the workplace. I understand it, but if I want advice or wisdom, I will definitely ask for it. It’s not that i mind the tips that folks who have been at it give me, it’s that they are always giving out advice, see the world through their lens, and don’t know when to stop and listen.
- Just because its always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it always has to be: Academics are often scientists who preach about evidence, and yet they are ALWAYS rationalizing processes, rules, norms, etc. by saying, “well, we have always done it this way.” Often times, there are many ways to do something. Just because something didn’t work 10 years ago, doesn’t mean it won’t work today. Just because the University of (Insert your nearest competitor) does something a certain way, doesn’t mean that we have to do it that way. Trust in innovation and allow for new folks to try out some things. Work together to blend existing knowledge and history with new innovation and evidence.
- Stop being late for everything: We ask our students to be on time, yet we tend to over justify our own absences and lateness for meetings or events to account for our own time management issues. I can’t tell you how many extra meetings that I have had to attend because key people were late to the last one, and we wasted time catching them up to speed or weren’t able to cover what we needed to.
- Stop preaching, and model good professional behaviors: We reprimand students every day for being late, not turning in assignments, texting on their phones, interrupting one another, and many other things, but have you ever really observed a faculty or workplace meeting or training? People violate all of the very things that we teach students not to do, so let’s stop being hypocrites folks.
- Put your technology down: This one fits into modeling good professional behaviors, but because this is one of the worst offending behaviors that I see, I can’t help but point it out again. We are always on our phones, lap tops, tablets, etc. So we tell students that they need to pay attention in class, but somehow we are the multitasking queens and kings of the universe; somehow I doubt it.
- Be kind: Sometimes I feel like I go weeks without hearing please or thank you in the workplace. In some places, kudos mean nothing anymore, because people get them for just about any and everything, yet in other places, kudos are never extended. Take time to tell a colleague, good job, or thank you for something they did for you. If you know someone is having a rough time, maybe you hold back your critical comment at the meeting or reframe it.
Recently I wrote a blog on the potential damaging effects of social media on society (Please read my previous blog for more context to this post). Many of you know that for years I have been an advocate and proponent of social media and technology, and have written several journal articles on the topic. I recently saw a promotional video on end-of-life decision making that was developed by a for-profit company to provide doctors with something to to show patients, because they seldom have the time themselves to have end of life conversations with patients. Pilot results are promising and show that these videos are helping to improve hospice referrals, while reducing insurance dollars spent in the last month of a patient facing end of life care. My reaction is not meant to say this isn’t needed or maybe it could be another tool in end of life care and practices, but where does it all end?
Think about how many trainings, conversations, meetings, communications, etc. that you now have virtually through technology rather than in person. Now, instead of training doctors and families for how to have those tough end of life conversations with patients, we are resorting to somewhat graphic videos to do the job. Online education for all of its positive empirical data also has serious challenges to it, especially in helping professions where relational work is at the foundation and core of our careers. I mean people don’t even call each other anymore or drop by without an e-mail or Doodle poll. If it’s not on our Google Calendars, it simply doesn’t exist in our day. Why do we e-mail each other simple questions that could be addressed by walking down the hallway and popping into someone’s office? Why do we try to condense deep level thinking questions into bullet points for an e-mail? When I was a kid, my family and friends would regularly call the house to chat with my mom, and if she was busy, she would tell them that she would call them back or let it go to an answering machine, but usually she picked up the phone one way or another, because even if she said, “can I call you back”, this helped facilitate the matainence of relationships. Now, I would feel uncomfortable calling the majority of my friends without doing a meeting Doodle to set up a time, simply because of the cultural norms of today. Have our lives gotten so inundated and busy that we no longer have time for cultivating relationships in more vulnerable and personal ways?
These questions got me to thinking more about how we interact with one another via social media and technology with regard to highly sensitive topics and issues. Maybe, this is why difference is dividing us as much or more today than at any point in time in our history. Consider how much information we post and share by way of social media with people that we have limited face to face relationships and/or history with, and about highly sensitive nature of those interactions. So you want to have a conversation about racism, police violence, sexism, homophobia, gun rights, etc., and you wonder why your message, however enlightening you intend it to be, is not well received? This is not just a critique of dogmatic right wing conservatives or those with different views than I, but is also directed at allies, activists, and those harmed by what is happening in our society and how it is communicated via social media. I appreciate those who seem to get this aspect of it and are working to create a more intentional personal community with friends and colleagues by talking on the phone and offering kind words of support online and offline. I think this is a great use of technology and social media as they become tools for maintaining personal connections and relationships as opposed to being used for building relationships or as the sole mechanism for maintaining relationships. I think the later is becoming more and more of an issue.
Many people who want to be allies are still uncertain how to do so, and with all due respect, a meme, blog, etc. oversimplifies so very much of the conversation regardless of whom writes or posts it. What often happens as a result is that allies invade the social media spaces of their family members, friends, and colleagues in order to intervene in conversations and posts that they feel like are unjust, ignorant, false, and/or oppressive, while even going as far as jumping into social media conversations in the spaces of friends of friends or friends..(Yes, this happens, so watch your privacy settings). Their intentions are generally good, but intervening in a digital space is not the same as intervening in the workplace or at a family gathering or when your out with a group of friends, and one of them makes an AllLivesMatter reference. We need to consider a these differences before we act.
In physical spaces, you are able to read the situation, understand context, interpret non-verbals, and create opportunities to engage in some deeper level conversations that might have some learning outcomes associated with them; however, you are not going to educate others without having relationships first, and likely not via social media where you can’t understand context, non-verbals, intent, etc. All you are going to do with your comments and calling out of friends and family is piss people off, which often leads them to hold on even more tightly to their ideologies. You are not engaging in dialogues online as a common rule, you are engaging in surface level conversations or heated debates, and the later one’s goal is to one up the person, not build a deeper understanding of their perspective. Consider the intentionality, purpose, and potential outcomes of your interactions. Are you debating others online in order to show friends of color or those marginalized that you are a good ally? Do you feel as though they are so traumatized that they need to be rescued ? Are you trying to provide support? Are you doing it because you really don’t know what else you can do? or are you doing it because you really think you are going to change or impact someone else’s ideology via social media?
The communication breakdown of social media is partially a result of a larger shift in how we form and maintain relationships via technology that has caused us to forget things like manners, framing, and interpersonal communication skills. For example, I grew up with some pretty racist family members, and while I chose to spend less and less time with those people as I grew older, I would not come into their homes and feel comfortable calling them out while sitting on their couch sipping a glass of sweet tea. At least not without a whole lot of careful thought and consideration for how best to frame and communicate my concerns. I would probably not scream and yell at a friend or colleague in person about how their perspective is ignorant, homophobic, racist, etc. in a way that intimidates the other person or angers them to the point of making the conversation void of any real potential for consciousness raising or perspective taking. Why then do people think its ok to come into virtual spaces and run off at the mouth without regard for the fact that you are in someone else’s home and would likely not interact in the same way if you were in a classroom, office space, or community setting? When you post to someone else’s page, respond to a thread, Tweet @ someone, etc., you are coming into their house, which means that some degree of manners and intentional thinking should be undertaken before you enlighten them with with your wisdom, no matter how on point you may be with it. Even if you are trying to be supportive, you can always message the person or even give them a phone call to provide support. Consider that the person that you are trying to support is engaged in a heated debate with a family member via social media, without knowing the dynamics and relations between the two of them, you have no clue if your intervention on behalf of your friend is going to be considered helpful or an annoyance. In other words, I may disagree with my brother all day every day, but let someone else, especially from my virtual communities, decide to go at him, I am not going to interpret it as supportive. Now, as the master of your house, you can also control the flow of traffic into your home by deciding whom to be friends with or to follow, whether you want their posts to be shown or not, etc. And even, whether to be home at all. I mention all of this to also say to people that if social media is depressing or traumatizing you, consider tightening the security in your home and better monitoring whom you allow into your home, and sometimes we all need vacations away from home, both physical and virtual ones.
There once was a time not long ago when people had to read in order to gain knowledge about current events and happenings. People even went to libraries to do research that often took countless hours and days to do as compared to the relative ease that people can access articles, books, and other sources of data in today’s digital age. While it is hard to argue with the benefits of internet resources and digital tools, it is also hard not to contemplate how they have harmed our society and thinking. On a side note, I am as guilty of allowing myself to be overcome by some of the items I discuss below, and am working to stop the trend.
Social media is contributing to the proliferation of ignorance. Consider the influence of the internet on how we access information. Gone are the days of newspapers, books, trips to the library, and print resources. Now, when we want to know any tidbit of information, we simply input it into a search engine and hit the return key. Some may say that technology has helped close the gap between haves and have nots, scholars and the average person, and the oppressed and oppressors by providing an abundance of information, data, and knowledge that can be used to help people be more informed about the world around them, make better decisions, reconsider values, ideologies, and world views, and act with a purpose. The problem with this perspective is that in very few cases are young people or adults taught how to critically think, evaluate, scrutinize, or critique the information that they find online. Now, everyone is an expert on everything because after all, they read about it or saw it on the internet. What is just as frightening is that they take this reduced down knowledge and spread their gospel on social media and even in classrooms and places of work in order to educate and enlighten others. Now, people with no college education are FB preachers and those with a minimal amount of education are suddenly experts on every topic. I am all about many “truths”, but this path is quite dangerous given the impact of these many truths on peoples’ decision making. While everyone has the right to their opinion or perspective, trusting in blogs (even written by educated people), memes, posts, tweets, and videos to be the basis of your knowledge base and decision making is quite concerning, because in the words of of a wise philosopher, “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one”, and many of them stink something awful. The challenge is that all opinions are not really equal, but in the day and age of social media, we are quickly moving in the direction of epistemological nihilism.
Social media has led to lazy thinkers.
For every thoughtful blog written by a person of color on police shooting or white privilege, there is a blog written by a neo-nazi, evangelical extremist, or political nut job, and in reality, how does one place any of these pieces higher than the others? We simply click like and share in relation to those digital messages that support our own opinions and values. Both the “right side” and “wrong side”, no matter which side you view under each label, often without even reading or researching the points made, author, etc. We already have our minds made up. This is well documented in the #blacklivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter debate taking place in virtual spaces near you. While some champion the voices and alternative perspectives coming out of the virtual jousting match, few people on either side can see the flaws within their own values and perspectives. You posting a meme putting down #alllivesmatter or writing an “intellectual post calling out white people” is likely going to have the same impact on others as the #AllLivesmatter meme that your conservative older aunt posted on FB had on you. Additionally, most of us are preaching to the choir in many of our social media spaces. You’re not enlightening people with your digital messaging, anymore than those you despise. Unfortunately, in the digital age, people are not only dumber, they have become disillusioned about their expertise and intelligence. Finally, because of the rapid fire motion of the digital world, we have all become lazier as a result. Instead of going through a process of conducting research, seeking out and critiquing multiple sources of knowledge, and seeking help from those with expertise on the topic, we simply rather write a quick post, tweet 144 characters, or write an emotional discombobulated blog than to take a deep breath, put the time into legitimate inquiry, and disseminate something with more substance.
Social media has led to a brave calloused society.
People have not only grown stupid, they have also become more callused. I remember watching the Challenger fall out of the sky in class and it deeply impacted me as a kid, but now a days, we see terrible events, deaths, oppression, etc. on social media in constant shuffle each and every day. How do we expect people to develop empathy or compassion when the digital age has all but made entire generations and possibly the entire human race desensitized and numb of emotions? People attack one another online every day for their perspectives, and very brave people who feel as though they can say things online that they would never voice to a person’s face, at least not where I grew up. This behavior happens on all sides of the the ideological continuum as well. “Allies” regularly engage in rescuing behavior and attack people with the same violence and dogma that they are supposedly trying to fight to eliminate, yet they do not see any of it, because at least if they are being good allies in virtual spaces, they can sleep better at night.
Social media has traumatized the world.
Students now regularly use words like, “traumatized”, “unsafe”, and “triggered” every day in classrooms. I saw a man shot down in front of me when I was 8, I watched my step father beat my mom almost to death on more than one occasion, and have had a gun pointed at my head on two different occasions. Want to talk about traumatizing and triggering? If social media is leading younger generations to being so fragile, because let’s be real, society has not suddenly become more racist, more violent, or more oppressive in the past 5-10 years. We have always lived under these conditions, but because of the digital age, younger generations are witness to much more injustice than previous generations did growing up. One of the scary things is that many academics and scholars are some of the worst offenders of jumping on bandwagons, buying into social media and digital messaging without researching more deeply about issues, events, etc. The worst part of it is that we as educators and educated individuals have some degree of credibility to the masses, so people might actually believe that a blog written by Dr. Shane Brady is somehow empirical fact or evidence. We chastise our students for falling into this trap, yet many of us do it regularly; we have all become traumatized, stupid, and lazy.
Social media has led to a fickle society.
In the digital age, it is easy to gain and lose friends over night. As long as you agree with friends’ perspectives, and digital knowledge building, you have tons of support, but the minute you decide to disagree, you instantly can lose an entire community of support. I find this especially frustrating when as an educated person, people do not see your education, experience, or research base in a post or a critique you make, but only your real or perceived social identities. Yes social identities matter, privilege matters, and injustices are real, but your entire world view should not be shaped by a social media and Wikipedia knowledge base. It’s ok for white people to critique #BlackLivesMatters and it’s ok for LGBTQ identifying persons to critique the protests of gay pride parades as much as it is for persons of color to critique white privilege and the exclusion of persons of color from the mainstream LGBTQ movement. We put ourselves in a digital world and use it haphazardly in our advocacy and lives, yet we are quickly offended when others do the same think, and we disagree with their positions.
Social media has promoted a narcissistic society.
How many profile pics does one person need to take? How many times do we need to post about accomplishments to fish for compliments and kudos from others? How many times do we keep posting on someone else’s page until we feel like we have “won” the debate? On top of these common social media occurrences, we also have a whole slew of political correctness experts as a result of the digital world. Ever have that one friend or colleague who feels the need to correct your post with their well articulated politically correct words of wisdom that they so freely bestow upon others under the false assumption that they are “raising your consciousness”? Consciousness raising or narcissism? People in the digital age have forgotten manners. How many times has a friend of a friend decided to contribute to a debate or thread on your social media platform? How about the political correctness expert who could very easily private message you to tell you that something offended them, but instead they post in your space for the entire world to see. I often wonder whether peoples’ posts are really the result of good intentions or narcissistic ego. Also, while I may not agree with my conservative family member or friend, I surely don’t need another friend chastising or attacking them in my digital space. Would you come into my home and tell my family member they are an asshole? Probably not, so why would you come into someone’s digital home and do so? Did you really think that critiquing police after Dallas was going to help advance social justice discourse anymore than #AllLivesMatter posts were helpful after Baton Rouge? Manners matter folks, even in a digital world, but somehow we have gotten away with violating them for so long, that we have become so self absorbed that we justify it in the name of the free flow of information or for the sake of consciousness raising.
Social media is not leading to a more socially just world
In the digital world we desperately want to believe that are blogs, tweets, forums, posts, etc. are leading to a more just world. The reality is that at best it is emphasizing our difference and divisions, and at worst it is destroying us. We tend to point to social movements such as Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter as evidence that social media is changing the world. I would caution against this type of thinking as for every social movement taking form in or using digital spaces, there are 10 hate groups also utilizing digital spaces to advance hatred and injustice. It is also important to realize that in social movements to advance justice, real human beings die, so while I am sure that those involved in the Arab Spring or #BlackLivesMatters appreciate your supportive hashtag and meme share, they would likely appreciate your warm body alongside them in the trenches even more. Whether or not social media is helping or hindering the advancement of social justice is entirely subjective, but what I am seeing currently indicates that we are as divisive as we have ever been, only people are quicker with their tongue and putting perspectives out there in digital spaces, while at the same time they are lazier with non-digital forms of advocacy and action; the combination does not bode well for social justice.
In conclusion, while social media and technology provide many advantages and resources to society, we must all pay careful attention to its negative impact on our cognitive, mental, social, and emotional dimensions. Social media and digital tools cannot take the place of critical thinking, education, perspective taking, dialogue, self-reflection, or good manners.
Tweeting for Justice: The Transformative Power of Critical Pedagogy, Intergroup Dialogue, and Social Media on Critical Consciousness
Late last summer my friend and colleague, Dr. Jason Sawyer, accepted a position in social work at Norfolk State University, a historically black university in Virginia. Around the same time, I made the decision to accept a tenure track position at the University of Oklahoma; both of us community organizers who value critical pedagogy and transformative learning, but each taking a very different position to begin our careers. As I drove to Oklahoma from my home back in the metropolitan Detroit area, I drove right through Ferguson, MS within days of the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police. It wasn’t long ago that my students at Michigan and Eastern Michigan were discussing the death of another unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, by a armed security officer in Florida. Now, not long after the Martin incident, here I am driving through community unrest, difference, and injustice on my way to teach at a historically white and privileged university in Oklahoma of all places, while Jason was preparing to begin his journey as a white professor at NSU.
It wasn’t long after the fall semester had begun that Jason and I connected to swap war stories and experiences about our first semesters on the tenure line. During our conversation, we discussed the events happening in Ferguson and in New York (death of Eric Garner), and how those events and the issues of racism, power, and difference were being discussed on our campuses or not discussed as well as how it all impacted students. During our discussion one of us mentioned the idea of bringing together our two different groups of students for some sort of experiential learning experience. Our only challenges being that while I have done some intergroup dialogue work in my past organizing and teaching as had Jason, neither of us would be considered experts on facilitating this type of dialogue or experience. Secondly, I had just begun to find the beauty in Twitter and was still rather novice with it, and Jason had never used the platform before. Lastly, here we are two white guys in very different contexts planning to have an experiential learning experience between very different groups of students. This brainstorm would either end extremely well or blow up big time in our faces.
What I love most about Jason Sawyer is that he is never scared to try something new or to just wing it. My problem is that I obsess over details to the point of talking myself out of great projects and experiences, but Jason helps me to feel at ease with just winging it. Over time we talked regularly and changed protocols and components of the project literally until a few moments before the final joint reflection session. We used the Dudley street films as a way to set the tone, but really we just exhausted every netflix film possible without coming to a consensus about a good film to have students watch to frame the dialogue. At first we wanted to focus on some other types of difference than just race. We were fearful that the obvious difference between our two student groups was race, which would most likely lead to OU students feeling so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t talk at all and NSU students being thrust into a place of having to be educators, when what we were going for was mutual learning. Eventually as we processed this assignment and developed it, we came to the conclusion that avoiding the issue of white privilege and race was the worst thing we could do in the wake of Ferguson and the SAE video from OU. We were uncomfortable about this topic, and therefore we were experiencing a bit of transference to our students. I actually think they were far more comfortable than us for most of the project.
When it came to learning and using Twitter, students were quite skeptical on my end. My feeling was they either did not see any educational benefit to the platform and/or felt like it was too exposing to use something like Twitter, perhaps a space that was private to them. While I am certain some students may still see Twitter as a waste of time, many more now see the social media platform in a different light. Students now see how useful the social media platform can be for dialogue. Even during the joint reflection session between schools, using video conferencing technology, many students felt more comfortable tweeting questions and perspectives than voicing them outside social media. I think students appreciated having control of the wheel for the dialogue, especially in the joint session, where they developed questions and truly took the lead for most of the session.
One of my biggest concerns throughout the planning of this project, was could a brief experience truly even touch the realm of dialogue or impact critical consciousness? I think education and academia throws around the term dialogue way too loosely and generally what is really held are discussions. Dialogues are different and so much deeper than discussions. Dialogues are uncomfortable, come with conflict, and lead to greater understanding for everyone involved. How could we do this in a brief Twitter conversation and a one time joint discussion session between schools? If I hadn’t been there to see it, I never would have believed that transformative learning and dialogue could take place from this type of activity; however, I was there, and I did see it take place with my own eyes. There was a point in time when a question related to something along the lines of, what does it mean to have privilege and how does it relate to difference was posed? Students had some division around whether privilege was only unearned or could it be earned. Remember, we are not pulling out the academic literature here, but having a real talk moment as people. During the course of this dialogue, you could see visible discomfort in the body language of students and conflict between groups, yet there were bridge people among each group of students, who helped to translate, summarize, and put differences in perspective that challenged each group to think more critically about privilege. For a time, OU students probably downplayed the difference between earned and unearned privilege, and were also emphasizing the importance of money in thinking about privilege. NSU students were not entirely considering that white privilege or racial privilege are not the only forms of privilege. At the end of this 10 -15 minute discussion though, you saw students visibly have these Ah Ha moments indicative of true learning and understanding. It was nothing that Jason or I did in this instance, but what the students did to bridge the difference that made this learning possible.
As we wrapped up the session, some eyes were glassed over, but there was energy and enthusiasm across both groups of students. Although we have not begun data analysis on this project, the initial feedback is highly positive, and students have indicated that they learned so much from this project and want more in the future. It is amazing what we can impact as educators, if we move away from 30 page research papers and tests as the primary vehicles for assessing and evaluating student learning. As I walked away from the final event today, I had a smile that I couldn’t shake all day long. There were so many things that did not go as planned, technology issues, last minute changes, etc., yet at the end of the day, we just moved forward, and something special happened for all of us involved. If we can come together via social media and technology for a brief time, and come away with greater understanding about complex and sensitive topics such as racism, difference, privilege, and diversity, than what could we accomplish if we had more exposure and experiences similar to these, both in our classrooms and in our communities? What if we could proactively have these kinds of conversations all over the place, before an innocent person is killed because of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc? What if we had these types of dialogues throughout our lives, would we not have a more accepting, proactive, and humane society? Social media is often trashed for being a waste of time, yet it possesses potential to have these types of deep level conversations not only on our communities, but across out society and borders.
With all of this said, at the end of the day, it takes people of all races, genders, sexes, ability levels, classes, education levels, religions, cultures, sexual orientations, and ages willing to make themselves vulnerable and open to learning. It takes cultural humility and students, educators, and social workers willing to make mistakes and to be taught, not just teach. It takes a core belief and value that despite what we have witnessed this past year and over our history, that we can do better as peoples, no, we must do better as peoples. For my part, I am humbled and privileged to have been part of this project, to have learned from everyone involved, and to truly have hope restored that we can have a better society in which difference doesn’t divide us to the brink of extinction, but brings us closer together to learn, innovate, and change the world. In peace and love – shane
On April 9th from 9-10PM EST, social work students from Norfolk State University and the University of Oklahoma will be engaging in a Twitter dialogue about privilege, difference, and justice in the context of community organizing and activism. The Twitter chat will be facilitated by the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) @acosaorg, along with guest facilitators, Dr. Shane Brady, MSW, PhD, long time community organizer and current professor of social work at the University of Oklahoma and Dr. Jason M. Sawyer, MSW, PhD, community organizer and professor at Norfolk State University School of Social Work.This Twitter dialogue welcomes the participation and contributions from social workers, students, academics, activists, and allies from around the world.
#MacroSW Shout Outs
#MacroSW chats takes place on Twitter on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month. The chat is a collaboration between the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) @acosaorg, The Network for Social Work Management (NSWM) @TheNSWM, USC School of Social Work @MSWatUSC, the University at Buffalo School of Social Work @UBSSW, Karen Zgoda @karenzgoda, and Sunya Folayan @SunyaFolayan.Background The frame for this discussion will be set through the watching of two best practice case studies in community organizing; Holding Ground and Gaining Ground, the story of the Dudley Street Initiative. While these films will provide some context for how grass roots community organizing and activism can lead to social change, dialogue in this chat will focus on recent events from Ferguson to #SAEHatesMe to anti LGBTQ bills, all of which have led to local and student led activism and community organizing.
How to Participate
Don’t miss this unique opportunity to connect with social work students, educators and practitioners from around the world. To participate: Watch the documentaries Holding Ground and Gaining Ground: The Story of the Dudley Street Initiative, if possible. Many university libraries have these films available or trailers can be found for them on YouTube and other related sites. As you watch the film, take a few moments to consider current issues impacting your community and communities around the U.S. and world. Think about how difference between groups of people leads to and/or perpetuates injustice as well as slows community organizing and social change. Also think about the lessons learned from Dudley Street or from other successful grass roots organizing and activist efforts that you may be familiar with. What made them so successful? How did they address difference? and What lessons learned can we take away from these efforts? Finally, what is the role of social work in grassroots organizing and social action? Participate in the live Twitter chat using the hashtag #MacroSW. Tweet any questions or responses directed to the moderator @Dr_Pracademic and/or @Dr_PraxisAlly and include #MacroSW in all of your tweets.
Values and Principles for Anti-Oppressive Dialogue Adapted from Fithian
The purpose of this Twitter chat is to challenge our own thinking and to learn from one another within the context of a virtual space. In order to promote safety, respect, and mutual learning in this space, we ask that participants read over these suggested values and principles for Anti-Oppressive Intergroup Dialogue, which are grounded in the literature of positive peace, anti-oppressive community organizing, and intergroup dialogue.
1. Power and privilege can be destructive to group processes. Privilege, like power can be used for positive purposes but should be used with awareness and care.
2. Approach dialogues with cultural humility, since none of us can truly be experts about the experiences of another race, gender, religion, culture, social class, sexual orientation, or other positionally nor do we understand their experiences.
3. We can only identify how power and privilege play out when we are conscious and committed to understanding how racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, ableism, adultism, and other forms of oppression are perpetuated by both people and systems, beginning with ourselves.
- What are the most pressing issues impacting your community (Similar or Different from the issues impacting Dudley Street)?
- How do you see and/or experience difference in your community?
- Given recent events in Ferguson, NYC, Berkley, Oklahoma, and around the country, how do we effectively address difference in communities and in practice?
- What lessons, if any, do you take away from successful social action, practice, organizing efforts such as Dudley Street, #BlackLivesMatter, #OU_Unheard, Arab Spring, and others?
- Given the close knit ties of social work to federal, state, and local government agencies and funding streams, can we as a profession effectively and adequately promote grassroots organizing, social work practice across difference, and activism for social change, why or why not?
- Does social media and technology help or hinder dialogue and addressing difference in community organizing?
Additional Resources Dudley Street Initiative Website: http://www.dsni.org University of Michigan Program on Intergroup Relations: http://igr.umich.edu Teaching Tolerance website run by Southern Poverty Law Center:http://www.tolerance.org Community Toolbox by University of Kansas, resources on holding dialogues in communities: http://ctb.ku.edu/en/search/node/dialogue Anti-Oppressive community organizing resources by Lisa Fithian: http://organizingforpower.org/anti-oppression-
Many Thanks Everyone – shane and Jason
resources-exercises/ We look forward to hearing your voice and insights on April 9th!! – shane and Jason
What does it Mean to be a White Academic @OU Watching #SAEHatesMe, While Being Inspired by @OU_Unheard
During my drive down to Oklahoma back in August of this year, took me right through Ferguson, MS post the Michael Brown murder. While I am a white academic now, racism and race issues are not new to me. I grew up in predominantly black communities, attended a diverse school, lived in the largest Arab community in the world, outside the middle east, and organized in Mississippi and Virginia around racial justice, but at the end of the day, I am a white guy with privilege, and I am part of the problem and solution at the same time.
I took students down to Ferguson in October of this year to pitch in in days before the grand jury verdict, and soon after, I watched @OU_Unheard get underway in response to racism and race related issues on campus. I have been privileged to have met these amazing young activists, participated in events, and engaged in dialogue with them via social media. This year has also seen the public outrage and racial divisions over the death of Eric Garner, Syracuse University students social media and organizing campaign around diversity and racial justice, and more recently the sit-in undertaken by students of a racist professor at the University of Cal. Berkley. During all of these events, I have been outspoken, blogged, and shared anger and resentment for the unjust systems that perpetuate racism and oppression in America. During the past week, I watched with horror with everyone else across the country at white OU students engaging in a racial chant via a recorded video that went viral on Sunday evening. The next morning I was with many of my students and colleagues walking in peaceful assembly against racism at OU. During the days since, I have struggled with expressing myself, unsure of my role as an ally, very aware of my own race and position, and equally aware that this is incident is probably much more of the rule than an isolated event than many would like to admit. When I taught immediately after the racist video was released, I realized even more how in trouble we were as a society. I am not angry with my students, many of whom expressed anger and disgust with the video, and more than anything, I appreciated their open honesty. You see back home in Michigan, students in the classroom would have hid their true feelings, covered them, because they understood the repercussions for expressing them, but here in OK, people are more forthright, for better and for worse.
One of the things that students brought up was whether or not there would be the same reaction if black students made a similar video, and many stated that it would not be nearly as big of a deal. My first reaction was that I could not believe that social work students would even begin to raise this question in the immediate wake of what was an extremely traumatic event for many black students on campus; essentially, sometimes you just need to learn to keep your mouth shut. My second reaction was that I could not understand how educated white social work students who had taken mandated courses on diversity and oppression just missed the huge flaw in their assumption. Now, I am regularly taken to task on this issue, but I do not believe that most white people in the U.S. are victims of racism. I say this based on sociological principles of race, the idea that for racism to manifest, one needs to have the presence of prejudice, privilege, power, and history all working for the benefit of one group against the welfare of another. In the OU case and in most cases in the U.S., black people may have prejudice at the same rates as whites, but they do not have white privilege for certain, depending on the context, they might have immediate power, but they do not have systemic power in the same way as whites, and surely do not have the historical legacy of oppression and violence working for them in the same way as whites. A simple example that I gave my students is that a black person could come up to me and call me a ‘poor white trash cracker’, and it would have little impact on me, beyond pissing me off the same as any name calling might. The ‘N’ word has history behind it, power behind it, hurt behind it, and when delivered by individuals who still have majority power in this country, community, university, etc. there just simply is no comparison nor can one make the case that racism is occurring in both instances.
The second thought that I had during classroom conversations was how focused students were on the video, whether or not students were going to be expelled simply by being present during the video, and whether the video was even accurate. I do challenge my students to think critically, to try and see the other side, and be skeptical of knowledge for good reason; however, this discussion seemed much more about finding some way to turn the issue of racism at OU into an isolated incident or to find a way out of accepting accountability for it. Yes, as white people living in a culture of racism and oppression in a nation built upon the backs and from the blood of slaves, native americans, and many immigrant communities, we are all responsible for it. The fact that many students could not make the link between the racism video at OU and incidents in Ferguson, New York, etc., or link it to the Tulsa Race riots, the destruction of Black Wall street, the sundown communities that existed formally until the 70s or possibly later, the refusal to teach critical history in the schools in OK, the lack of diversity on campus or in faculty ranks, the lack of a diversity administrative position, not to mention the regular microagressions experienced by students of color everyday, really made me scratch my head. Never have I wanted to scream in a classroom more than on this day, yet I knew that this would not change anything or help student learning.
The third think that I noticed was how disinterested many students seemed to be with the issue. Perhaps this was simply discomfort coming across, but I have social work students who simply did not attend the rally, really seemed annoyed that we were taking up class time to talk about it, and couldn’t wait to just leave and go about their lives. At the same time, I am watching faculty colleagues who have never expressed any interest in racism or racial justice in our school, on our campus, or nationally come out in a public display of support for students of color, and while I hope that they meant it, I just can’t help but remember how little support I got when I took students to Ferguson, how only one colleague came to an event at the school with members of OU_Unheard, and how now when OU is under the microscope and essentially all of us as white faculty are as well, here we all are walking, marching, and talking, just the way that white men have since the beginning of our beloved country. Why would students be any different? If this is the culture, and the adults around them model behaviors that convey that being an ally, whether for persons of color or LGBTQ, is merely about attending a brief training, putting a sticker on your door, and assigning an occasional reading by bell hooks, than how can we blame our students if they don’t quite understand racism, privilege, or what being an ally is to another group takes?
What bothers me the most is that the students at OU who were on the infamous video took the fall for what we as white people have accountability in; the institutional perpetuation of racism, myself included. How many times have I listened to a racial or off color joke and didn’t interject to stop it or call the person out? Sure it isn’t something that I am proud of or that I can even remember doing recently, but I know for certain that I have done it, and most white people have at some point in their lives, and I suspect strongly, that many have done far worse than that. The point is, I cannot pretend to be perfect, I am as flawed as the next white person. I have never been more ashamed of being white however, than over the past 8 months. I have thought about every single direct thing that I have ever done that could or did perpetuate racism or oppression. I also realize that playing the victim helps no one nor does calling out other people without a purpose or way to call them back in, because let’s face it; we need everyone working together, especially privileged whites, if we are ever going to truly address racism and oppression at OU or in the larger society. While I understand expelling the students involved in the incident, I am not certain that anything was gained through the action, and mostly it felt like more of a public relations gesture and way to calm down black students than anything in regard to addressing racism. The students and the video are simply illustrations and symptoms of much bigger problems in our society. Why not have the students involved face black students and see the impact of their words and actions? Did we even consult with students and leaders about what the community wanted or thought needed to be done or did we assume that we already knew, something white people do far too often. Moving forward, we as a school must continue to work on drafting our first antiracism issue statement. Our school must invite back Unheard student activists, and maybe this time, students and faculty will make it a point to come out and learn something. My colleagues and I, must push the university to continue to work on hiring more faculty of color, hiring a diversity administrator, and finding ways to improve upon our dismal percentage of black students on campus. We must continue advocating in the state for a more equitable criminal justice system that doesn’t simply use police, courts, and prisons as a legal form of racism. We must push the state to begin teaching about the dark side of our state and national history, the one that whites have covered up and kept away for far too long. If OU is rule committed to antiracism, it must give up the #Boomersooner call, mascot, and culture as it simply reflects white privilege and ignorance about the genocide and gentrification of native peoples, which this culture simply reinforces. Additionally, whites must stop simply trying to act reactively whenever an issue of racism becomes unmasked or public and stop trying to just react to make it go away. Racism and the pain caused by it will never go away, there is no reconciliation that whites can do that will clean away 150+ years of oppression and trauma to blacks, native americans, and other groups. We must begin to be comfortable with our own discomfort in order to begin being proactive in addressing racism and oppression. Finally, we have to speak truth to hold ourselves and our systems accountable.
Throughout all the negative that has happened over the past week here at OU and across the nation, I am also inspired by seeing the next generation of organizers and activists standing up and speaking out. I have been fortunate to be able to watch @OU_Unheard grow from a few students into a campus and regional movement. More and more black students are standing up and demanding their rights across college campuses, which has a feel to it that I have heard from older activists, feels similar to the start of unrest and action in the 1960s, only more digital. While some students that I spoke to inside and out of the classroom struggled with grasping the basic elements of white privilege and oppression, others did get it, and many came out for the rally and are finding other ways to be change agents, which makes me smile inside. I am not sure even as I complete this post if any of it is coherent nor am I any closer to gathering my thoughts about what I am feeling or experiencing at the moment, but I do know that there is work to be done, and the time for action is now.