Taking Back My Happy Place

I get to teach Judicial Process and Politics this Fall and I am over the moon!! This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me see if I can explain why it's such a big deal.

* * * * *

The last time I taught JPP was at American University, where I was denied tenure. I loved this class. It was truly my happy place. My PhD is in judicial politics and this class was a fundamental part of my teaching arsenal for nearly two decades. I taught other courses like civil liberties and constitutional law when I was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, but JPP was the only court-related undergraduate course I was allowed to teach at AU because a senior colleague taught the others. I spent a lot of time on it — even co-edited a textbook for it — and enjoyed every minute; it was interesting and challenging, and my students learned a ton and had fun doing it.

After I was denied and during the first semester of my terminal year, I accepted another job but delayed my start date until the semester was over; I wouldn’t have left any of my students in the lurch at mid-term, but I had a particular soft spot for this course and the students in it.

Many years later, when I returned to teaching in my current position, I wasn’t offered a judicial course. But I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom after 5 years, but relieved to not be asked to step back into old shoes. Even teaching my favorite course unappealing. For the first time since being fired, I didn’t have to think about political science or political scientists if I didn’t want to. And I really didn’t want to.

* * * * *

When I began looking for another job, it didn’t occur to me that it might be healthy to distance myself from the profession after being denied tenure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be pursuing another tenure track job. I didn’t even look to see if there were open positions in my subfield. I was sure I’d be seen as damaged goods. In my early 40s with two small children, I’d just been fired — and from a pretty average program, especially compared to others in the area. I didn’t think I’d be competitive in a very tight academic job market. And even if I was, there was no way I was going through the tenure process again.

Still, I felt uneasy walking away from a career for which I’d worked so hard. So when a friend sent me a job listing for the American Political Science Association, I applied immediately. I had no idea what it meant to work for a nonprofit membership association, but staying connected to my field was appealing. And, well, beggars can’t be choosers, a bird in the hand, and <<insert your proverb of choice here>>. I was lucky to get such a good job.

But it came with some serious unanticipated costs.

I didn’t realize at the time how much of my self-worth was connected to the academy, and it surprised me. It’s not like being a professor was my childhood dream and losing my job was the end of some long-held ambition. It wasn’t. And it’s not like I couldn’t imagine a different career. I could. What really weighed on me — and came to a head a few years into my stint at APSA — was that I might not be capable of doing anything. Forget political science. I mean anything at all.

For decades, I honed tools that I relied on to overcome the setbacks I experienced in all parts of my life. Focus, commitment, persistence — these were keys to a work ethic that gave me confidence when I didn’t succeed. Yet, after I left AU for APSA, it became clear that those tools were the primary casualties of losing my job. Without them, I lost my moorings and my way.

At first I thought I might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but the truth is that I never felt like a fraud because I had no illusions and made no pretenses about my abilities. I wasn’t one of the “cream of the crop,” not as a student or a professor. I wasn’t in advanced classes in high school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, I earned As but as many Bs (and a C I remember rather well) in college; I did ok on the GRE, winged my way through a few of my grad school classes, and nearly lost my funding after the first year. There were many times when I felt—painfully—that I wasn’t capable of competing and worried that I wouldn’t get my degree, wouldn’t get my work published, wouldn’t be a good teacher, or earn tenure. Or earn tenure again. These feelings were par for the course for me.

The antidote for my insecurities and shortcomings has always been to push myself, do my best, and not give up easily. What’s the worst that could happen, I always ask myself before taking a new step; falling on my face isn’t usually reason not to try. I’m ambitious and want to do well, but experience tells me that not succeeding is always possible (even likely, at times). Through this prism, it made sense when I didn’t get As, was rejected from grad schools, struggled in my classes, had manuscripts and grant proposals rejected, was overlooked for jobs. Hurdles and setbacks like these don’t feel like failure. They feel like normal and necessary — however disappointing and sometimes discouraging — parts of a life-long learning curve that served me well as an academic.

Being denied tenure should have been the same, I thought. Another — albeit pretty substantial — setback. But it wasn’t. And not because of claims that my research wasn’t good enough, or plentiful enough, or whatever.

What I had a lot more trouble overcoming was the assertion that I was on a “downward” trajectory, the doubt that I would be productive in the future, and the judgment that this constituted a failure on my part. They questioned my focus, my commitment, my persistence — the very tools in my kit that had been anchors when I struggled, that I needed to combat my insecurities. With the implication that I’d let my work slide, that I wasn’t dedicated enough to the job, that I didn’t work hard enough to earn my place — that I was knowingly and even deliberately a slacker — they dismantled my defenses.

Of course, it was all code for having kids. They knew better than to say it out loud or in writing, but it’s what they meant.

Still, knowing this to be true — that the failure was theirs, not mine — didn’t make it easier to move on.

And working at APSA made it exponentially worse. Spending my days (and many of my nights and weekends) surrounded by political science and working in the service of political scientists was a constant reminder that I’d been found wanting in ways that were integral to my identify and self worth. I did my work with a smile on my face and even enthusiasm some days; I knew how to pull up my big girl panties.

But it took a lot of energy to continually push down the grief, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment that I often felt. I regularly compared myself to others, at once reassured that I was as good a political scientist as most of them were, and dejected that I’d been unable to get it done as they had. I forced myself to continue working on a couple of research projects, to review manuscripts and grants, to do other small things, to prove to myself — and others — that I was still dedicated, willing, and able to put in the time. But it made me feel worse. I felt diminished and ashamed for needing to validate myself, and guilty for not appreciating how lucky I was for everything else in my life, including this job. Self-doubt was a constant companion, creeping into every part of my life.

I had trouble sleeping well for years, a function of having babies and then small children, and medical issues. But when nightly panic attacks turned to sleepless nights that lasted for days, and then weeks, I knew I was becoming unmoored.

* * * * *

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from being fired.

Yet, after a long slog that included invaluable support from my family and the expertise of professionals, I eventually turned a corner. I reclaimed my tools and made (enough) peace with the past so that I could take baby steps forward.

Or back, as it were.

First, a return to the academy and the classroom, on my own terms.

Now, a new — or rather, an old — class! I’m ready to take back my happy place!

The Long Game

Nothing makes me happier professionally than to support colleagues and friends who are fighting the good fight against discrimination and other inequalities in academia. Unfortunately, the opportunities to look behind the curtain  to see the fight in real time are rare. But there’s a very important lawsuit against American University for which many documents are public. With permission from both women — who are close friends of mine — I am posting a court ruling denying the University’s motion for summary judgement and a declaration of events in support of the plaintiff. Change is incremental and requires that we all contribute in whatever ways we can to make institutions as fair as possible. These amazing women are working together on the long game for all of us.



If You Write It, They Will Come

It’s been just over a year since my first blog post, and a dozen or so posts later, I’ve managed to relay the basics of how I was denied tenure. It’s been quite the journey. I didn’t have much of a plan, which is probably obvious to anyone who’s read the whole thing. In retrospect, I’d do a couple of things differently. But every time I thought about developing an overall writing strategy, I thought I’d puke. There’s nothing quite like being fired -- and in a such a disparaging way -- to unleash torrents of professional and personal self-doubt. Even after so much time had passed, and even though I’ve landed on my feet, I just couldn’t bring myself to systematically think about how to proceed. The best I could do was to take it chronologically, and that’s what I’ve done. There’s one decision that I made at the outset though, one from which I didn’t deviate and wouldn’t change. This is MY story, and I’ve told it as I experienced it. Not how others may or may not have experienced the same events, but how I experienced them. I posted all of the original documents to provide context and maybe lend some legitimacy to the telling, but my purpose was not to analytically dissect the end of my career from some objective perch. I figured there was plenty of time for that. And, as it turns out, there are plenty of other people who have been more than happy to dissect it for me. But more on that later.

Instead, I made a point of being fully subjective. I didn’t see any other way of starting a dialogue about a difficult topic without being as honest -- and as vulnerable -- as I could be about my version of the truth. I don’t need or want anyone’s approval or validation; I don’t need or want anyone to agree with my version of events. I just wanted to tell it like I saw it, and to begin a conversation about failure in the academy.

And, there’s been a lot of conversation! Most of it hasn’t taken the form I thought it would, though.

I’d hoped that readers would comment on the blog, see it as a space to share their own stories about tenure or other issues in academia, and get feedback from others also interested in the conversation. But it’s not surprising that most people with negative experiences aren’t keen on baring their souls on a stranger’s website for the world to see. And even if some were inclined to share in such a public setting, legal proceedings often prohibit them from doing so.

So, much of the dialogue has been through personal correspondence. I’ve had the privilege of meeting truly remarkable scholar teachers, from many disciplines including political science, who have confronted obstacles to their academic success in one form or another. Like me, most have complex stories to tell, combinations of institutional and individual failure. Some have moved on from the academy to find professional fulfillment and happiness elsewhere. A few have more tragic stories that haven’t ended as well. All of them would benefit from knowing the others, and perhaps some day they will.

Many have connected through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve learned that friends and colleagues whom I’ve known for years have their own stories to tell. Many hold positions of influence in and out of the academy and it’s been gratifying to hear about their insights, reflections, and efforts to address institutional challenges.

And there is, as one might expect in the age of the Internet, an impressive online community of PhDs and former academics who provide much-needed professional and personal support. These folks are remarkable in their resilience, empathy, and ingenuity in developing solutions to many of the problems faced by former academics and those who pursue alt-ac careers. I count myself lucky to know a few of them.

I fully expect that there are many among these folks who question my version of events. I know of at least a handful, a couple of whom are close friends. It has always been the case--and it will always be--that there’s disagreement about whether the failure was more mine than the institution’s. And that’s fine with me. In fact, it’s good with me. The academy is a complex place, and much of my future writing will explore in greater depth--and greater objectivity--the nature of individual and institutional failure.

Actually, I have a lot of catching up to do on that front. As I discovered soon after I started writing the blog, the “exploration” of my failure is well underway.

It turns out that the most frequent conversation about my blog hasn’t engaged me directly at all. Instead, it occurs in a different space under a cloak of anonymity. It came to my attention a couple weeks after my first post; I wouldn’t have known about it at all except that I got a notification from my site that the hits were off the charts. Turns out Wordpress collects all kinds of stats, including the number of views and visitors, likes and comments, and their countries of origin. Who knew?

It also tells you what links visitors use to visit your website.

I remember PoliSciRumors (PSR) as PoliSciJobRumors from my grad school days. It was, and is, a (largely) anonymous, online resource for information and gossip about the job market in political science. It’s been a long time, but I don’t recall quite the range of topics as appear on PSR today.

As I write, a quick look at the homepage reveals threads about the market and hires at various universities, climate change and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, anti-Semitism, Alex Jones, Eminem, boredom, spousal hires, and how to list various degrees on one’s CV. I haven’t done a careful analysis of the table of contents, but it appears that most threads have fewer than 20 posts, a few have a hundred or so. Some span years, others are brief, others new. It’s abundantly clear that some are more obviously related to professional development than others.

If you do a search for “tenure,” you're likely to find at the top of the list a link to a thread called, “Tenure denial blog.”

Yep. That one’s about me.

Sooo, from the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” view, my blog is an enormous success! For someone interested in creating dialogue about tenure denial, I couldn’t have asked for more. Over 400 posts, more than 64,000 views! Twenty-two pages! And every time I post, there’s a flurry of activity on my blog as the number of viewers surge; even between posts, and after more than a year, there are almost daily referrals from PSR to my blog. Way to go, Jen!

Yeah, well, not quite.

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t reflect a particularly deep professional or intellectual conversation.

This is not to say there aren’t posts that contribute in meaningful ways to the discussion about tenure and other issues. There are several posts that tell personal stories about both positive and negative academic experiences, and others that provide supportive responses. There are many posts that provide useful insights about the academy and institutional processes, more generally, in an effort to unpack the complexity of professional requirements and administrative decision making. And some posts provide some constructive criticism about my interpretation of events. I wish they’d engaged me directly rather than posting anonymously on PSR, but at least they engaged each other.

Mostly, though, the “dialogue” is what you’d expect from a social media forum in which anyone can participate and do so behind a wall of anonymity. Not surprisingly, it’s exceptionally judgmental, and gratuitously cruel at times.

Most of the comments are openly hostile to my concerns about the process that led to my denial. It’s interesting that all the recommendations to deny tenure are taken at face value, that the denial is seen as a given that requires little examination. The instinct is to see failure as the individual’s rather than the institution’s. It fits perfectly with the view that academic accomplishment is appropriately measured in terms of numbers (of journal articles, of new teaching preps, of summer money), with little attention to the myriad ways that we contribute through our scholarship, teaching and service. One can critique my CV while also seeing institutional flaws, but nuance is not a strength of many of these commenters.

It’s worth noting that there’s much consternation about my apparent unwillingness to accept any responsibility for my denial. More than a few posts refer to me as “delusional.” And many are annoyed that I’m “bitter” and feel “betrayed” about something they see as so obviously my fault.

I admit to being caught off guard initially by these responses. But it’s clear that these folks think I was naive (even “stupid”) to expect verbal and written standards to be meaningful and consistently applied, and to believe what I was told by mentors and administrators. They see decisions to change jobs to live with my partner, to have children, and to care for a sick parent as choices that are not conducive to being a successful academic. From this--wrong-minded, in my view--perspective, it’s no wonder they think I’m a whiny, unreflective, and entitled person who failed spectacularly.

And not just a person. A woman. The thread is littered with sexism, much of it aimed at me, but also directed at other contributors to the thread and academia more generally. Most remarks are subtly discriminatory--the kind that is often excused as simply the rules of the game or women being overly sensitive. I suspect that the same comments wouldn’t be made about similarly situated men, but I’m just a female snowflake, so what do I know?

Several posts are more blatant, and of the cruder variety that one expects to see among trolls--although perhaps not in a (semi?) professional space that is presumably a resource for so many of our graduate students.

I’ve pulled a few of my favorites:

  • Women are usually very good at this game: look at me, I am a innocent little victim who just had a child and ugly white men don’t want to tenure me for my vajey and kids. It turns out, she is a total psychopath.
  • Few made the case that tenure was appropriate, but no one wanted to deny a female given history and department politics. [Made in response to my tenure case at Kentucky. It seems everyone’s an expert.]
  • Jesus, she just won’t stop. The ‘institutional failure” was the typical kind for a low-end University -- that is, the faculty are wusses and didn’t tell a garbagewoman that she was on track to be kicked out sooner than they did.
  • This woman is insane. Now she’s basically blaming her sh**tty CV on her kids?
  • Not sure why she didn’t play the gender card.
  • She wanted to be treated like the good ole boys (even though she’s against such a system), but in her case the I’m-a-woman so just go ahead and give me tenure system.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t read this stuff. But it’s just such a train wreck--it’s impossible for me to ignore. It’s lurking out there, taunting me. Literally.

More importantly, I’ve found it necessary to monitor the thread to protect myself, my family, and a few of my friends and colleagues from some of the more vile posts. Thankfully, there are some rules of engagement at PSR and moderators who are responsive to concerns about slanderous and threatening comments.

In general, though, these people--whoever they are--have the right to express themselves. And if they have some deep-seated need to do it at my expense, then so be it.

BUT! All is not lost.

There’s a ton of material in this PSR thread. Beyond the (sometimes frightening) insights into how some in our discipline understand the inner workings of academia, the posts provide some compelling writing prompts. There’s plenty to go around, so perhaps you’ll continue to join me in future posts as I think and write more about success and failure in the academy.