Naming the "Huff & Puff": Failing to Withstand My Academic + Personal Big Bad Wolf

This blog post has been a long time coming. I started this website and project three years ago with the best of intentions. I wanted to be a public scholar like some of my mentors. I wanted to deftly move between different worlds and audiences to get my ideas and thinking out into the hands of people and organizations that wanted to think about what it might take to cultivate an equitable and inclusive democracy. I thought my work would inform policy and practice, and I would see and feel the difference I was making in the world.


But alas, here I am, three years later with a grand total of 2 blog posts to-date and a sinking feeling that what I am doing doesn't matter.



This internal tension was perfectly encapsulated during a recent exchange on my fraternity group chat. We were debating the Milwaukee Bucks historic move to boycott a playoff game in the wake of the Jacob Blake murder. The resulting 48-hour work stoppage placed the NBA players in a moment where they sought to engage the team's owners "governors" around more direct action in support of racial justice efforts. Anyways, one of my frat brothers was making a case that the NBA players' efforts were meaningful because they had such a large platform. I pushed back and shared my belief that the magnitude of the platform doesn't matter. The empirical research is inconclusive around how much "media and social elites" actually influence political behavior (but this is a whole different case when it for consumer spending).


So I shared that any person can make a difference in the Black Lives Matter movement and we shouldn't necessarily hold up NBA players. My fraternity brother proceeded to screenshot a picture of LeBron James' Instagram account with a circle around the number of his followers and then a picture of my Instagram account with a circle around my number of followers. Suffice to say, the point about platform was made.


I despise the pressure of academia to pursue peer-reviewed publications that sit in pay-walled journals. Yet, at that moment, I had to admit that I've succumbed to those pressures. This micro-interaction, that on most days I would brush aside, tip my cap, and keep it moving, came at a time where I am starting to put together my tenure materials, so I've had a lot of time to reflect on what I've done and not done over the past four years that have gotten me to where I am. The trouble in my spirit though, is that I don't really know "where I am." I don't have a kajillion followers like LeBron or even a more fair measure of the "LeBron like" education scholars.


I share the reflections below to make transparent aspects of the hidden academic curriculum that have been most salient for me as I start to think about what is next for my intellectual journey based on where I thought I wanted to be and what has transpired in the intervening years. I own that I am immensely fortunate and privileged in a lot of ways. I am sitting here writing a blog and being in my feels at a time when there is record unemployment, political and social unrest (especially in Chicago), and the most severe public health crisis in my lifetime. My hope in wrestling with these issues publicly isn't to "whoa is me" but part of my process to help me unearth and name dynamics that I have had to navigate:


On being a Dad (#GirlDadGoals): The most significant change in the last three years of my life is that my child was born in December 2017. Growing up without a father around, I dreamed of the day and opportunity to finally become a parent and do better for my child than I had experienced. Turns out, I had zero clues about how hard it is to parent well. How exhausting it is. How thankless. And while I strive to be egalitarian in my relationship, I know that child-rearing still falls disproportionately on my spouse. So there's also the guilt of knowing I am reinscribing norms and patterns that I am supposed to be aware of and actively dismantling. The literature on academic motherhood is compelling and clear. The pandemic's impact on faculty who identify as women has only made gender dynamics in higher education starker.

So I carry with me the reality that even with how hard I feel like it might be to be a dad and a professor, there's little space or room to layout those issues because of how it contributes to the marginalization of academics who identify as women, whether they have childcare-taking responsibilities or not. If my child pops into my Zoom feed during a meeting, everyone thinks, "how cute" – if that happens to a woman, everyone thinks, "why can't they handle their child care duties." I get it and it's gross and harmful. In hindsight, I wish I would have prepared myself better for the responsibility of being a dad, spouse, and academic. To know that the intellectual realities of understanding gender dynamics in my field will continuously be at war with my lived and felt truth would have been a nice pro-tip to have. The constant need to unlearn my gender privilege and press into my blind spots while not entering into a space of paralysis, because someone's (my child's) life depends on me to be active and engaged is just the tension that exists and I am learning how to navigate - but I am constantly feeling like a failure and not measuring up in this area of my life.


On being a mentor (#GuruMentorGoals): One of my favorite parts about my short-lived foray into student affairs was the deep connections I could form with students. One of the recurring authors on this blog was an undergraduate student at IU while I was a grad student there. Perhaps my favorite part of being a professor is mentoring and advising students. There's the instant gratification of seeing my efforts manifest in students' lives. However, I did not realize how much time it takes, how emotionally exhausting it can be to navigate life with mentees and advisees. The first challenge was finding the courage to be vulnerable. My mother passed away two days before I formally started my role at Loyola (and three weeks after I got married). The grieving process I went through (and am still going through) had me compartmentalizing and being guarded in a way that made it difficult to connect with students and colleagues and to be my full self. In addition, my organizational style of always being sure I am speaking truth to dynamics that I think are perpetuating inequities does not always land with others in a way that demonstrates an ethic of care and concern until trust and rapport have been built. Finally, I had never actually seen anyone through an educational process from beginning to end, so there was just the learning curve of simultaneously being on a journey and just trying to stay a couple steps ahead.

That said, I could not be any more proud of some of the students I've worked with in my first few years here at Loyola, who are most likely successful despite my mentoring! I feel like I am finally prepared to mentor and advise well, but that has come at the expense of many mistakes, regrets, and harms. I know I will continue to have those things, but I am also more hopeful that I will be more aware of them and more responsive to address them well. That doesn't make up for the mistakes though and I cringe every time I think about them.


On being the Point Guard (#LeaderGoals): Growing up playing team sports, I often think and process information in sports metaphors. I didn't realize how much time and energy it would take around the additional tasks of serving as a project leader on both research and service-related tasks. In grad school, I sort of just had to show up and be great.

Other people were cultivating the space and the contexts to allow me to flourish. I never took stock (or properly thanked) those people for facilitating my experiences and success. The sheer amount of unseen minutia that it takes to get a manuscript that I am a lead author on out to a journal, or the effort required to help lead a campus-wide initiative, or merely finding times to meet with a project team scattered across the country in different time zones is significant. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the community of collaborators I get to work with and it is a source of energy in my work. But the "set up and tear down" of the experiences include a lot of hidden labor that sometimes outweighs my enthusiasm and excitement for the next publication or actualizing the goals of a workgroup. And I know what some may be saying, well you should just get better at saying "no" – and I agree I should. But as a Black scholar, there are additional dimensions that exist. For instance, if I say "no" to working with a student of color, that very likely means they may not ever get the chance to work closely with a faculty of color. If I say "no" to trying to be the faculty liaison to campus voter engagement efforts, there's the chance that staff won't able to connect to or be read in the same ways by other faculty. That "if not me, then who" game in my head is unsustainable but it's also an unsatiable mechanism developed in response to seeing people and communities I care about let down for so long.


On having multiple interests (#FullPersonGoals): This one is short, but I find joy in doing a lot of things. Writing at times can be one, but the academic process has made reading and writing feel like work. I am thankful for a book club I was able to participate in this summer that has helped me reconnect with my joy for reading. My faith journey has become increasingly important to me over the last couple of years. The effort to immerse myself in that process takes time. Likewise I also try to carve out space to follow sports, as a less intellectually heavy outlet. Point is, I thought the freedom and autonomy that came with being a faculty member would provide ample opportunities to develop areas of interest outside of my line of research. Looking back:


Therefore, my engagement in some of those activities comes at the expense of #scholargoals and #girldadgoals and #gurumentorgoals. This means that even when I am engaging in non-academic things that bring me joy, there's always some guilt that I have to take on and navigate through to be fully present. I am not good at this but I am becoming more aware of it, so at least its a work in progress.


Inconclusion

My intent isn't to leave you with recommendations or encouragements. To be frank, with everything that's going on, it's not the headspace I am in right now. I thought I could do things differently in the academy. Still, the reality I am sitting with is that the structures are too ingrained, the norms too strong, and the incentives too perverse to allow for different outcomes. People that appear to have their stuff together are the exception and not the norm. It sounds "duh" to say – but I convinced myself that with a little elbow grease and a few right breaks, anyone could follow their dreams and goals, especially if they were rooted in the pursuit of equity justice. The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, right?


Well, as DJ Khaled says:










One of my child's favorite stories this summer was the Three Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. She was so comforted by the fact that our home in Chicago is made of bricks just like the third pig in the story so that our house couldn't be blown down when the big bad wolf comes along. There's a connection here for me to the platforms we desire or have, to generate change at a moment such as this. What I am left with is a more full understanding that no one's platform is better than another person's per se. But each of our platforms is made of different materials. Our ability to withstand the variety of real-life big bad wolfs that come for our professional and life goals is predicated on how our platform is built and what it is built with.


I am only now coming to terms with the lack of attention I've given to the construction of my platform rooted in what I set out to do versus what I've actually done. Is it too late to course-correct? Does it matter to me or to anyone if I do or don't? Should I work more on "not hating the player (myself), but hating the game (academia)"


I plan to sit with all these questions and more as I embark on an unprecedented season in my work and personal life. Nothing is guaranteed in academia with tenure decisions. So I've told myself that I need to allow room to entertain what life would be like outside academia. This post is my flag in the ground and I hope to try to be as real and transparent as #scholargoals and #girldadgoals, #fullpersongoals, #leadergoals, and #gurumentorgoalshashtags will allow.


More soon,

DLM

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