Well, yesterday I officially went off-contract, which means that my first year on the tenure track is in the books. Call it my "counselor heart" (a colleague recently used this term in discussing how I approach people and situations), or how I was raised in this field, or just pure nostalgia and romanticism, but this time of the year always gets me in a reflective mood. And while I have been doing a lot of reflecting, about a lot of different aspects of my life, it seems most germane to talk a bit about what I learned in my first year on the tenure track. Just why will come up throughout my reflections, but for now, onward to the list!
1. WHO PEOPLE SEE IS NOT WHO I AM, AND THIS IS OKAY
During the spring, I shared with a couple close friends that conferences were odd spaces for me. They were odd particularly because they felt at times like very lonely spaces. Sure, it is always great to catch up with friends who I rarely get to see at conferences, but over this past year, I have also experienced people coming up to me to tell me their feelings about my work, or to say they are excited to meet me, or that they have heard of me (whatever that means). Sometimes these comments are genuine, and can lead to good conversations and developing friendships. However, I have also grown increasingly wary and skeptical of these conference moments, because they seem to position me (and others to whom this happens) as: (a) synonymous with "our work," and (b) as somehow separate/different from/in another category from the people who are telling us these things. But the not-so-strange thing is, I am not my work. And I am not the wonderfully put together person who folks make me out and/or I project to be at conferences. Conferences seem lonely to me because I have found them to be places where I realize just how out-of-step some peoples' understandings and experiences of me are, experiences which are largely based on the work I do and the way people construct me in their minds.
At first, this felt like a lot of pressure. I knew that I was one of a few trans* faculty members in my field, and I felt a need to have my shit together in lots of different ways. But then I realized that the way other people experience me, and the way other people position me, does not make up who I am. I realized that oftentimes people see who they want/need/desire to see, myself included. I realized that, although I love my work, I am not my work. And I realized that I didn't need to get wrapped up in others' impressions of who I was, no matter how (in)accurate they may be. In a field that is about human development, we as educators still have a strange tendency (I think) to not see the humanness in people. This is something I struggle with, too. We all have "intellectual crushes" that may stop us from realizing that we are all human, that we all make mistakes, or that we all are not as great as our work is. Realizing this helped me work to calm my own positioning of people as somehow above and outside me, and it also helped me realize that if people do this with me, it's okay to not get sucked into it all. Speaking of which...
2. LEGGO MY EGO
I wrote a post earlier this year about negotiating my own relationship with my ego. This year has been an odd one in terms of recognizing, and letting go of, my ego. Some of this is about how I was socialized as a boy and young man, and some of this is about the academic environment in which I now work. However, of the multiple things I have learned from this year, one of the more important ones is that I am not an island, nor do I desire to be. The work I do, and the reason I do it, is community-based. If for no other reason, this should serve as a gentle reminder to let go of whatever ego I may have about my work, my job, may career, or my anything. Not to mention, I didn't get to where I am now, nor will I get to where I am going just by myself. Hence, the egotistical idea that I need to be front and center in any conversation is pure silliness (to put it kindly). Although I have been working to unlearn my own ego investments, I know I still have lots of work to do, and am glad I have friends, family, and mentors to push me when and where I need to be pushed. Speaking of which...
3. IF YOU KNOW YOUR WHY, YOU CAN GET THROUGH ALMOST ANY HOW
For those of you who picked up on the Frankl reference, well done! Throughout this year, I have been thinking a lot about my why, or the reason why I am doing what it is I am doing. Coming to an understanding of my why has helped me find the signal in the noise. For example, I have become less concerned with failing/broken relationships, money, and meetings that seem superficial or pointless. I know these are not connected to my why as a critical educator. I have also become less consumed with trying to fix everything (in my life or other people's lives), because I know that, in the past, this has become a negative habit for me, and does not connect to my why as a friend/family member.
My transition to being a tenure track faculty member has made me think very differently about my life. Whereas I was always thinking about what would happen next (e.g., after I finished being a full-time practitioner, after I completed my dissertation, after I graduated from my doctoral program), I now am in a role that I want to be in for the rest of my foreseeable career. This settledness has meant that I need to really dig deep and think about why I want this, especially why this is such a desirable place for me to land for a good long while. This has required a lot of journaling, a lot of reflecting, a lot of thinking on drives, and a lot of processing with my mentors. However, I feel like I am getting closer to knowing my why, which has allowed me to get through some trying hows. Speaking of which...
4. THE ACADEMY MAY BE LIBERAL, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT'S CRITICAL
All this commotion about "the liberal academy" would have people think I landed a job in an environment that was built to love and support me as a marginalized person.
These people clearly haven't read my dissertation.
But seriously, this year has taught me that while the academy may be liberal (in some areas), the academy is certainly not critical. In other words, the academy may "accept" (parts of) me (some of the time and in some ways), but that does not mean the academy is interested in interrogating the nefarious ways that systems of oppression and dominance regulate everything that occurs. For example, I was at a one-day campus-based conference yesterday, but I could not go to the bathroom without walking 15 minutes back to my own building, because there was not a single all-gender restroom in the building where the conference was being held. Yes, the academy is liberal in some respects. We have a growing awareness of gender and sexual diversity, and have set up committees, commissions, and offices to support folks. But yo, this does not mean the academy is invested in dismantling systemic trans* oppression. It also doesn't mean that people know, understand, or care to unlearn all the ways that trans* oppression influence their work. For example, at the conference I was at yesterday, in the span of just a couple hours, I heard presenters talk about discussing dress codes (in a normative way) with people they supervise, use language like "he or she" and "men and women," and had colleagues stare at me in not-so-covert ways. I also did not see a single presenter of color nor was there a trans* presenter, nor was there any presentation about systemic oppression. So yeah, we may (emphasis on the word may) be liberal, but liberal and critical are not the same thing, and the conflation of these two terms has the potential to cause harm to many people. Speaking of which...
5. THIS WORK IS NOT ABOUT ME
In the fall, I read a great commentary written by Dr. Steven Salaita, the faculty member who was fired for tweeting pro-Palestinian tweets shortly after accepting a tenured job at the U of I. In his commentary, he suggested that working toward tenure without reshaping the contours of tenure was a further reification of privilege as well as the effect of neoliberalism, which turns academics into docile bodies. Toward the end of his piece, he wrote, "Making trouble is precisely the function of the intellectual, thought. And being radical is a solid antidote to boring work."
Reading this piece made me think a lot about the people who helped me get where I currently am. It also made me wonder what my investment in changing the process of tenure could look like at this juncture in my career. I then realized that the work I do as an educator is not about me. It is not about my own CV, or developing myself into a recognizable figure beyond my institution, program, or field. Certainly, this is what neoliberal illogic would suggest I focus on, but I am much more invested in community and working alongside marginalized populations to work toward the redistribution of life chances. In this sense, then, Dr. Salaita's piece helped me understand that my own contribution to reshaping tenure was to stop looking "ahead" (i.e., at my own progress toward tenure) and instead, look "around" and keep working with the people who are in similar positions to me. In other words, I realized that the way I could make dents in the edifice of the neoliberalism was to work with doctoral students, doctoral candidates, and early career faculty with marginalized identities to help unlock the byzantine nature of the academy.
I realized this work was not about my own progress, but about our progress. I realized that my own success was worth nothing without the success and community of my kin. I realized that my why, my raison d'etre, the very point of my being in the role I was in, was to queer the fuck out of the academy, which meant troubling what success as an individual construct means. I've tried--and am continuing to try--to realize this in lots of different ways...and I am not sure I fully comprehend what the potential of this conceptualization of communally queered success means. However, I know I am working toward it, and have been experimenting with various different forms and formats since reading Dr. Salaita's piece, because this radical approach to my work is, at the very least, and antidote to boring work. Speaking of which...
6. TRANSITIONING TAKES TIME, (LOTS OF) ENERGY, AND HUMILITY IN SPADES
So yeah, jokes upon jokes with the trans* person writing about transitioning taking time. But seriously, for someone whose top StrengthsQuest strength is Achiever, and for someone who is a Taurus, and for someone who has a Type A personality, I figured I would be able to transition to my new role, my new environment, and my new everything real easy. "I got this," I figured.
This year has been hella hard, in lots of different ways. And it wasn't until my dear friend Jasper told me just a week ago that I should remember that transitioning takes time, and it may be another year yet until I feel settled in my life and work, that I sat back and decided to give myself a break. Despite how smart I may (appear) to be, I apparently didn't get the memo that I cannot do All The Things and address All The Transitions in 10 months. Go figure, right?
And while this may seem like a "water is wet" headline, for people who have been conditioned to achieve, achieve, ACHIEVE, this is a hard pill to swallow. For me it was, anyway.
Transitioning has been hard, has taken a lot of time and energy, and has reminded me of my own humility. I am fallible. My body cannot take on what it once could. I will get sick. I will not be able to do everything for everyone. I sometimes won't even be able to do things for myself, and will need to call on friends and family. And despite how much I love and rely on my QT* kin, I still have work to do in terms of reaching out and seeking the support I need. True story: I am far better at giving support than getting it. So while I recognize now that this whole transitioning business is tough stuff (and will likely never be fully complete), I also know I still have work to do in embracing my own humility and fallibility so that I reach out when I need help. Speaking of which...
7. IT'S EASY FOR ME TO LOSE MYSELF
Literally, without several near and dear people, I wouldn't have made it through this year. I went through a couple really rough patches this year, and it would have been far too easy for me to stay in those rough patches, and to keep spiraling down and out. However, I have been fortunate enough to find (and keep!) some incredible people in my world. I have also found that the kindness of people who are in, but maybe not central to, my life is astoundingly wonderful.
Yes, it is easy to lose myself. My work could be (as could all of ours) all-consuming. I could sink. I could forget my why. I could get bogged down in the fuckery of the academy, its cloak of liberalism, and other people's interpretations of who I am or should be. However, after four seasons on the tenure track, I am gaining a sense of my own cycles, and think (hope) it will become less easy for me to lose myself. And for that, I have my fam to thank. The people who have taken me in, spent hours with me on the phone, reached out, sent care packages and cards, and celebrated me when I was too sheepish to do so. Thank you so much, y'all. When I lost myself, you found me, dusted me off, and set me back on course.
So here's to year two, to more reflections, and to growing together with my friends and family in ways that wrap us all in love, support, and critical hope.
*This blogpost is not about mowing my lawn.
*This blogpost is not about evoking pity.
**This blogpost is about me continuing to unlearn my own complicity in compulsory able-bodiedness, cis- and heteronormativity, and neoliberalism, and to do so out loud.
This weekend, I visited family in New York for the first time since starting my job as an assistant professor. I knew the trip would be both wonderful and rough for a variety of reasons. For instance, I love my family (wonderful), but am not out to my family, which causes me to have to code-switch in relation to my queerness and trans*ness (not-so-awesome). However, I am able to do this code-switching in a way that protects me and makes me safe (awesome), but experience extreme dysphoria and displacement being in a cishet world for so long (not-so-awesome). You get the picture – my trips home are a conflicted mash-up of wonderful and rough moments.
This trip was particularly fascinating, because while my queerness (in terms of my sexuality, gender, and epistemology) are unknown to my family, they do recognize me as an entirely too queer phenomenon in our family. What I mean is that I am so very strange, weird, and abnormal to my family. I am not married (well, I was, but that’s a different story, and feels like it is in the distant past now), do not have children, live outside of New England/New York, and have a terminal degree. For a kid who grew up in a close-knit working class family that transitioned to being a family below the poverty line when my parents divorced, my life choices mark me as queer to my family. Why would I live so far away from family? Why would I work at a college or university? Why would I attain my Ph.D.? Why would I be a professor?
For some in my family, they “get” (some) of these choices. They realize that I work alongside college students to create liberatory knowledge and environments. They understand the desire to get a Ph.D., and appreciate the work it takes to not only earn that degree, but to then use it the way I am as a college professor.
But there is a divide in my family regarding the inherent worth, value, and purpose of my queer existence, and that divide rests on the fault line of the word “work.”
See, when I was with my family, a number of people kept asking me to provide them with evidence that I “worked hard.” They asked questions like:
After these questions, my family made assumptions about what I was (not) doing when I was not in the classroom. I realized quickly that to work, and to be paid adequately/appropriately for that work, meant working with my body in a way that literally made me sweat. The inherent assumption that had been passed down through the generations of my family was that “real work” meant laboring—quite literally—for hours on end and producing something(s) tangible.
As a faculty member, I did not toil for hours (because I only teach two classes, for a total of six hours a week, which of course equated to my “only working six hours a week”). I did not use my body enough for my family to understand what I did with my life. I did not move enough to substantiate my statement that I “get paid more than adequately to do work that I love,” which is often what I tell people about my life path. In my family’s construction of valued work, then, I was not measuring up.
On Sunday afternoon, after my extended family had come and gone, I went out with my brother to run a couple errands. I told him I needed to mow my lawn when I got home, but that I liked doing this, so it wasn’t a terrible chore. I didn’t think much about the encounter until the next day while I was sitting in the car being driven to the airport to leave. I was thinking about mowing my lawn, and about my displeasure with my family’s displeasure with my career. And then in struck me: this is yet another example of the ways in which compulsory able-bodiedness and neoliberalism have (re)produced illogics that mark me as queer—as in completely outside—the understanding of my family.
Queerness is: not moving my body as much—or for as many hours—as my family expects.
Queerness is: using my mind as the main mode by which I earn a living.
Queerness is: Not being in—and being quite fine with not being in—a long-term, committed (heterosexual) relationship with “a nice girl.”
Queerness is: actively and openly suggesting I do not want children.
Queerness is: resisting the suggestion that the aforementioned ways in which I live, love, and think are passing phases, which I will one day wake up from.
And so, at the very time that I am marked as not-queer by my family, I am marked as incredibly queer. And my queerness is composed by the compulsory able-bodiedness, cis- and heteronormativity, and neoliberalism that structures the ways in which “value,” “worth,” and “honest work” have been (re)produced within my cishet working- to lower-class, New England family.
But this isn’t a blogpost about evoking pity. It isn’t about trying to get you to “feel bad” for me due to my family. I mean, really, you can feel however you want to about this. I have made peace with it, and have come to expect it, although this trip was especially informative given my new job and the open dismissal, joking, and disapproval many of my extended family members showed for my career. It was also fascinating for me to get a full understanding of how my family equated my work to an active, physical doing, into which my thinking/writing/course prep/reading did not fall. This is why I was told that I “just worked six hours a week,” because when I was teaching, I was producing something tangible (i.e., a class, where content is delivered in a supposedly transactional experience). No, this is not a blogpost about queer feelings…although there is a post in that, and I am sure I will write it at some point soon in relation to this family trip.
This is a blogpost about how compulsory able-bodiedness, cis- and heteronormativity, and neoliberalism are passed down generationally.
This is a blogpost about how I need to remind myself of the work it takes—and why I do that work—to unlearn the systems of domination and oppression I have been socialized to believe for decades.
This is a blogpost about (un)learning my own complicity in how I have allowed compulsory able-bodiedness, cis- and heteronormativity, and neoliberalism to structure my existence.
Because when I say I love mowing my lawn, I realize that this is largely because I am able to produce something tangible.
Because when I talk about mowing my lawn, I realize that this is something that my cis- and heteronormative family can grasp onto in ways that my queer life is unknowable, illegitimate, deviant, and/or abject.
Because when I jokingly told two friends last week I should mow lawns for a summer side hustle, I realize I was participating in the commodification of my body, my time, and that exercise that helps me relieve stress, all because I should always be thinking of ways I can “get ahead” or use my body for work in ways I have been taught denote “value,” “worth,” and “honest work.”
For as “smart,” “aware,” or “well-read” as I am, I still have so much work to do, especially when it comes to (un)learning what constitutes work. I have so much to (un)learn about whose body is capable of work, what “working” means, and how work does not equate to worth. I still have so much to do personally so that my own internalized dominance and oppression does not spill over others in ways that limits their life chances and possibilities.
And so while I was frustrated at these moments with my family, I am glad they gave me the gift of realizing all the work I have to do reconceptualizing “work.” And this was why it worked for me to be with my family. And why it will always work. They may not always (or ever) get me, but together, we work…in lots of ways.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.