GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

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How We Get Disciplined

In Liminal Thinking on 2014/05/21 at 13:19

Well, there’s this new fangled thing called interdisciplinarity. Everyone’s talking about it, especially universities who want to attract students to their exciting campuses. They know students don’t want to be siloed into boring old disciplines. They want to be able to see the world more widely, to understand it through the lenses of different approaches and methodologies. They want to be well-rounded, interesting people.

And who should offer this to them? The faculty, of course. And many faculty members want to do their work this way, too—understanding complex issues through a mixture of methods, approaches, and epistemologies. We may have been trained in one discipline, perhaps, but we understand how methods can be integrated into new approaches, and how findings from one discipline might apply to others. Many of us revel in the creativity that interdisciplinarity affords us.

In theory, this is what universities want, too.

But how does one evaluate interdisciplinarity? In evaluating a scholar who uses multiple methods and disciplinary approaches, who gets to decide what is “good” or valued? Who decides what is cutting edge?

Unfortunately the current system of merit, at least in my university, affords no one room for interdisciplinary work, as much as the university might promise it in their shiny brochures. If you want to get tenure, you will have to meet the demands of a discipline. One. And those demands will be measured along the most mainstream of lines. Are you a “real” political scientist? Are you a “real” (insert traditional discipline)?

What does this mean for junior faculty? For those who want to follow the rules, it means that some of our most creative years are spent churning out work we hope will make it into the “top” journals, the gatekeepers who have a chokehold over the discipline itself. This means some approaches have been ignored or marginalized, irrespective of their merits. Fortunately there are a growing number of outlets for interdisciplinary work (blogs have been a godsend), but the gatekeepers are still that: in evaluating work, it’s the names of the journals and number of citations (in those journals) that will get you tenure. Not your creativity, nor your flexibility with methods across disciplines.

If universities are serious about interdisciplinary work, there must be clear and transparent means of evaluating that work, especially for tenure. In my case, there were no procedures to do so the first time I came up for tenure. The second time, one “procedure” (an additional letter outside my department) was created in an ad hoc fashion to clear up this problem. It didn’t. In the end, my work was still evaluatedsolely along disciplinary lines because the administration had no other means of doing so.  Interdisciplinarity is important, it is necessary, and it’s a growing trend. But so far the academy doesn’t know how to measure it or reward it. So it sticks to disciplining its faculty instead.

Nothing Is Forever

In Uncategorized on 2014/02/04 at 03:56

Last month, during finals week, a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, after watching one of my favorite graduate students defend her dissertation, the Provost’s office hand-delivered a letter to me. The letter (or rather, the Provost) regretted to inform me that I had been denied tenure, but thanked me for my service to the university.

I was standing in the hallway in front of my new office, one with windows, one that had been assigned to me because my chair, my department, and even my dean assumed I’d be granted tenure, with no problems. I was chatting with some colleagues, who watched as I opened the envelope and turned pale.

I suppose if there had been any doubt about the outcome, I would have been able to accept that this was the final decision. But there hadn’t been, so it felt like a joke (a very bad one, indeed).  My world was falling apart—I was losing my job, my footing, and colleagues I had come to think of as family.

My first reaction, after the shock, was a feeling of, well, not anger. It was panic and humiliation. I considered not letting anyone know what had happened and just drifting off into the sunset of my “terminal year.” Instead, I got on the phone, and the response was overwhelming.

Here’s what I’ve learned from being denied tenure:

People Actually Pay Attention

Colleagues came out of the woodwork to tell me how shocked they were by the decision. One after another came to tell me about my work, what they valued, and why they considered me invaluable to the university. I had no idea many of them even knew what it is that I do, or have done.

It Pays to Get to Know Your Colleagues

Despite all outward appearances, I’m pretty shy. I come off as an extrovert, but it’s painful for me to put myself out there, and it’s rare for me to make the first move socially. Instead, I offered to serve on committees, where I could get to know people on a work level first, but also just to get to know their personalities a bit better so I would be comfortable knowing them socially. When crisis hit, I knew whom to call and whom to count on.

Teach Your Students Well

I teach social activism, and many of the students who have taken my courses have gone on to be incredible community organizers. When they discovered I had been denied tenure, they organized a campaign that included petitions, virtual days of activism, and letter writing campaigns—all without any input from me. Administrations may not pay attention to students (particularly in tenure cases), but knowing that I had touched so many lives, and that they were willing to help me was a gift in a very dark time.

Think of Your Karma

A colleague of mine, who had been denied tenure at another university, came to me with her own story of anger. She hadn’t been able to let it go, and it was clear that her bitterness was eating her up; she despised so many people and could not forgive. I thought a lot about what that kind of anger could do to me, and in discussing it with another friend, I decided that there were two things I wasn’t willing to sacrifice by turning to anger and bitterness: my dignity and my karma.  It’s too important, and I have a long life to live.

There may sometimes be reason to hope

Although it first appeared that the provost’s decision would be final, the support of my colleagues, department, chair and director may have turned the tide. The provost agreed to review my case again next year. And for that, I’m grateful, although wounded.

Figure Out How to Heal

I’ll get back to you on that one.

Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.  She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization(Routledge 2010) and Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2013).

Immigrating into a New World

In Liminal Thinking on 2013/06/17 at 05:22
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Being first at anything is hard, but being first at college is a bewildering and sometimes terrifying experience.

I work with a scholarship program at Northeastern University that funds students from underprivileged backgrounds; all are first-generation college attendees, most are from poor families, and with a few exceptions, either they or their parents are recent immigrants. This past week I gave a class simulation, offering a lecture on a complex political issue to a group of scholarship finalists. They were being judged on their responsiveness in the class, their ability to grasp the information and to process it. It was the end of a long interview day, and I could feel not only their exhaustion, but their need to prove themselves worthy of this award.

I feel a close affinity with this group: my mother was an immigrant from a large–and poor–family from a coal-mining area in Scotland, and my paternal grandmother and great grandmother were both immigrants, settling in blue collar areas. We were definitely a working class family and my generation of siblings and cousins were the first to attend college, a point of pride, but also skepticism from the older folks.

Getting to college was a tough road, mainly because it was unfamiliar territory to my parents, and frankly, my high school really didn’t know what to do with the over-achievers, particularly the young women. Even if we did make it to college, the usual assumption was that most of us would settle down to a nice family life in North Carolina–the bachelor degree, our counselors and teachers knowingly joked, was really a great pathway to the Mrs. Degree. My grandparents strongly urged me to marry my boyfriend upon my high school graduation (even if he was a punk rock loser with piercings and a bad attitude), because they worried that college would leave me an impoverished spinster: higher ed seemed a silly luxury to them.

Once I made it to college, armed with scholarships, the first of many student loans, and a new coat, I had to learn how to navigate a new world of privilege that had never occurred to me. Here were fellow students who didn’t have to work to earn money for books, let alone clothes. Here were invitations to homes that were larger and more richly appointed than I had ever seen. Here were assumptions about class from my peers and professors that didn’t reflect my own lived experience. Thankfully I had always been a good student, but it became clear to me that I would have to work even harder to catch up to those who had had years of private education, tutoring, and summers at lake houses.

But nothing could prepare me for the sense of alienation that I felt returning to my hometown, where suddenly poverty was put in stark relief to the rolling hills and stately buildings of my college. Old friends treated me differently, and I really didn’t fit in any longer–my aspirations were different and even considered odd. As my education progressed–BA, MA, and then Ph.D., I no longer had a place in that old world.

At school, I didn’t know how to ask professors for help or how to challenge them in class (working class kids are taught obedience as well as pride). I didn’t know how to navigate the financial aid system in a smart way (if you don’t have money, it’s hard to know what to do with it), and I didn’t think strategically about my career (if you’ve never known anyone with a Ph.D., or law degree, or any kind of “career” how would you know what it looks like?).

As a mentor for several of these first generation college kids in my (increasingly elite) college, I try to hold on to these experiences, because I know they have faced them and will continue to struggle with them. First generation kids–and particularly those of immigrants–are forging their own paths. There is a lot at stake for them in this new world, one they may eventually collide with the old. I know they will succeed, but not with a sense of entitlement. More likely, as in my case, they will feel a sense of relief–and bewilderment and dislocation.

Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.  She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization(Routledge 2010) and Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2013).


Is “Feminist” A Sexist Word?

In Liminal Thinking on 2013/03/16 at 23:35
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 

Whenever I teach an introductory lesson on “gender” in my first-year international affairs and international relations classes, I find myself prefacing my explanation of “feminism” with the familiar “Feminism is not about man-hating. Feminists are concerned with both men and women,” in order to fend off the usual hostile responses from both male and female students. However, it doesn’t wipe the smirk off many of student’s faces in the classroom; I still find myself feeling defensive and exasperated, particularly when combating the well-worn tropes against women in the military, gender quotas in electoral processes, or the idea that women aren’t fit to lead countries because of, well, emotions.

Studies of university students in the US (such as Zucker 2004) reveal that, while female students may espouse or support feminist ideals, they are cautious to refer to themselves as “feminists.” I’m not entirely surprised by this, as the term “feminism” has been treated as a dirty word or a “radical” identification by the American media.  I also have plenty of conservative students, but their discomfort with the word “feminist” seems to stem from a deep-seated belief that saying the word itself is the gateway drug to accepting liberal ideals with reckless abandon; I’m most concerned with the knee-jerk negative response to the word feminist among otherwise liberal (particularly women) students..

Recently a conversation with my brother got me thinking about the term in a different way. My brother, also a social scientist who’s pursuing his PhD, replied to a comment I made about gender inequalities in academia with “there’s no room in my academia for sexism.” That’s nice, I replied, but far from the reality of the situation–I jokingly quipped, “of course you think that; you’re a man.”

No, he replied, you’ve got it wrong. The word “feminist,” he argued, is itself sexist, and further divides women from men, which is counter to what you’re trying to achieve. Given that I know that my brother really does believe that women are equal to men, I decided to think carefully about his point.

Is the word “feminist”—with its root in “feminine” (or rather, the French féminisme)—a sexist term? I considered other “isms” that reflect exclusions: racism, classism, ageism, and ableism (and the list does go on…). Does feminism fit into these categories?

All of the “isms” mentioned here (e.g. racism) are based on subordination and domination. One who is a “racist” believes that his or her race is superior to another, and generally social systems and culture support that belief—as such, one does not need to be “racist” to live in a racist society. Indeed, one may live one’s entire life benefitting from such a society without ever having professed any racist belief at all. The same goes for class: while one might never personally think that the poor are somehow inferior, one may still benefit from a society where such class divisions are deemed normal or even necessary.

So, can feminism be exclusionary or represent a relationship of domination/subordination? Discussions about binaries aside, I don’t think so. For my brother, the crux of his argument rested on the intrinsic belief that the sexes are equal, and to make distinctions of inequality with words like “feminism” creates an inequality through the term’s (perceived) suggestion of exclusion (that is, an exclusion of men). But once one takes the domination/subordination tack, we can see that feminism, as a word, seeks to lift the “feminine” out of the subordinate position, and perhaps to unhinge the binary altogether. As bell hooks reminds us in “Feminism is for Everybody” (2000), men are harmed by patriarchy as much as women; feminism celebrates the liberation of men as well as women.

What we finally came to—and the point where I think most students get stuck—is that sticky question of “equality” and what that means. How do we decide when we are equal? My final argument to my brother: “well, we can all be equally shat upon.” Nobody wants that. What we do want is justice—and that, I think, is the meaning behind “feminism” and the identification as a “feminist”: if the meaning of “feminism” includes an understanding of justice, the subordinate position is denied, as is the dominant one (Sen 1999).

So, rather than approach the subject of gender with the negative “feminism doesn’t mean the exclusion of men,” I think I will begin my classes with this: “feminism is the demand for justice for everyone.” Perhaps that is an “ism” that will be less frightening.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

In Praise of Female Friendships: Women Professors, Women Students, and Academic Generations

In Liminal Thinking on 2013/01/15 at 23:10
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

One evening last month, I met up with a small group of young women, and went home feeling uplifted, happy and inspired. These are women I have known for many years, and they are more than dear to me. They are funny, smart, witty and adventurous. We have traveled together, had countless dinner parties together, gossiped, and learned together. The common bond between us (aside from a mutual affinity) is that I was once their professor and they were once my students.

I have been teaching in my university long enough that I have witnessed the development of several classes of students from young, naïve, bright-eyed 18-year-olds to savvy, confident and sometimes cynical young men and women. And over the years, long after they have graduated, many of these students still see me as a mentor, but many see me as a friend. They are not afraid to come to me for advice, nor are they afraid to offer their own.

I have felt so enriched by these relationships that I am always surprised by fellow faculty members who never see beyond professor/student roles, and those who are very clear that they want no other role (except, perhaps to write letters of recommendation for grad school). I understand the need to keep a student at arm’s length when one is directly supervising the student. As a feminist, however, I believe in the vital importance of the mentoring relationship, particularly between women. I also appreciate that women often relate to each other in non-hierarchical ways that offer the possibility of fostering deeper relationships—not mentorship, but friendship.

I think of the long friendships I have with many of my former students in terms of academic generations, in which my experience of growth is joined with theirs. Among the relationships that I cherish most, for example, represent my first and second years of teaching–I was younger when I met them, and, in a sense, grew up with them. They were looking to me for guidance and advice when I was in the process of figuring out my own life—navigating the unfamiliar territory of a new career and a new university, going through the growing pains of intimate relationships, and for all intents and purposes, becoming an adult.  Each one of those friends/former students from that time buoyed me up with her wit, her curiosity and her creativity, without actually knowing she was helping me learn as well.

Our profession is inherently social and personal—we are, after all, engaged in shaping minds and fostering learning. As women academics, we are, by nature of our gender, role models to countless young women, and I take that as a serious responsibility. Our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes and our failures can always be material for teaching and mentoring—in the true feminist sense of the personal being political.

Yes, being an academic and being a teacher are intellectual pursuits, and worthy of the respect that many professors demand from their students. But the satisfaction of our jobs may actually lie elsewhere. When, someday, I look back at my career, I’ll think of the books and articles I’ve written, of course. But, I will see those as artifacts of a former me who explored ephemeral puzzles and was fascinated by esoteric theories. The “real” me, the lived me, will be traced in different ways: those that I have loved, those that I have cherished, and the academic generations of women who have or will have taught me so much, even as I was teaching them.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Professors Can Also Be Snarky

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/10/16 at 02:28

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 

In putting together my dossier, I am forced to revisit my past teaching evaluations, and my student comments. For the most part, I receive a great deal of positive feedback, but of course, every once in a while you have that student who hates you with a ferocity that is only matched by his or her immaturity and insensitivity. I’ve blogged about that before, but now I want to do the thing you know we all want to do: answer them.

You see, I usually have a pretty good idea who the complainers are, even in the large course I teach. It’s even more apparent when it’s a student from a small group or one of my international programs. I think they know this, so their “anonymous” remarks are usually pretty thinly veiled personal attacks, the kinds of things they would be never be brave enough to say to anyone’s face. I know it’s petty to even consider them, but you know and I know how much these kinds of remarks rankle. In the alternative universe in my head, I dream about the ways in which I could respond. I’d like them to know I’m human, too.

So here goes…. (and before the usual comments rage across the blogosphere concerning feminist need for authority and how terrible I am to care what students say, okay, got it. Move on.)

The “She Hates Me Because I Disagree” Argument

“She is so obviously liberal—I know I can’t say anything in class because it will affect my grade.”

Sure, if you tell me that women’s rights are a silly thing to talk about, we’ll have words, because I know you can’t back up that argument. I’ll give you an A if you can. Really, I will, because I like a good argument. Not a passive-aggressive attempt to justify your own lack of engagement in the class.

The “Why Aren’t You My Mommy?” Complaint

“She rolls her eyes when you talk to her, which is mean” (this was on a trip abroad)

I’m TIRED. I’ve been dealing with a sick student, a student who idiotically fell into a hole, a kid who ran into a motorbike, and a lot of whining. Forgive me for rolling my eyes when you asked me if I it’s possible to get you food that is “more American.”

“She is so unapproachable.”

Did you come to see me? No you did not. Not once. I sat in office hours waiting longingly for you to stop by as the semester went on. I missed your face. Why are you so cruel?

The “I Don’t Know Why She Makes Me Read” Screed

“I really think she should tell us the night before that we’re having a quiz, so I’ll do the reading.”

Um. Really?

The “I Want to Make you Look Bad” Attack

“She lived the life on the beach while we lived in the dorm.”

I lived in a dirty bug-ridden homestay–that yes, admittedly was on a beach in a small fishing village—because it cost less than $20 a night, which gave us more money to spend on your excursions and the nice clean dorm you lived in. And after being in the classroom with you from 9:30-5:30 every day, I had exactly 20 minutes before the sun went down and I fell exhausted into bed to “live the life.”

Oh, and I washed my underwear in a bucket.

“She lectures once in a while, has too many guest speakers and lets her TAs do all the grading.”

Huh. I thought I was enriching your education by having those three (yes, just three) experts in their field share their extensive experience. I spent hours creating that syllabus and writing my lectures. And there are 250 of you. Do you think that I am some kind of machine capable of doing all the grading myself–in the two day-turn around that you told me you expected?

The “I Lack All Awareness of My Privilege” Defense

“I pay too much money here to not be allowed to use my laptop in class.”

No, you pay too much money here to not pay attention in class because you’re watching YouTube videos. I CAN SEE YOU.

The “A Body in a Seat Counts as Attendance” Argument

“I think it’s really disrespectful that she asks people to wake up in class.”

I was trying to help—you were drooling on yourself.

The “Any Woman is a Lady” Alert

“She doesn’t like it when you call her ‘Miss Horn,’ so be careful.”

I am old enough to be your mother, and we do not live in the Old South. If we did, I’d let you call me Miss Denise and we’d rock on the porch together in the evenings drinking sweet tea while someone rubbed my corns.

And finally…

“Who does she think she is?”

Your professor. Get over it.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Professors with Attitude

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/09/21 at 08:30
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Sometimes you can’t fake it.

This summer I was in Bali, conducting another of my social entrepreneurship trainings for a group of Balinese students and students from my university. In the past this program has been a real struggle for me and for my assistants, caused by personality conflicts, cultural misunderstandings, and less than helpful  “partners” on the ground. And my own attitude, it turns out, is a huge indicator of how much I will enjoy the (sometimes) grueling six weeks of the program, but, more importantly, how my students will experience my class.

I took last summer off out of sheer exhaustion—I had run the program in India during the spring semester and it was difficult on many different levels. My assistants and I (all women) were basically sequestered in our hotel every evening, as were the students (all women but one) because of cultural attitudes towards women in public places in the small city where we worked. I was homesick. I had a handful of particularly unhappy students (who were completely unprepared for the culture shock), and the divide between the relatively privileged students from my university and the Indian students — who were largely from small villages — made communication (both culturally and verbally) a huge obstacle. I was not happy.

I decided to dive back into the fray this summer, with the help of a local partner with whom I’d worked before and trusted. I took on two new assistants and started fresh. And it was an amazing experience.  The students were happy and joyful (they sang every day during breaks), my assistants were laughing and energetic, and I was feeling less stress than I had in months. I was enjoying teaching again, and it showed.

And so this makes me reflect on my own attitude, and how my personal life and stresses are carried with me into the classroom, no matter how much I think I can fool everyone.

I went back over my evaluations over the past few years, and sure enough, the student comments almost perfectly tracked my personal attitude during each time. Going through a bad break-up and divorce: “the professor seemed unapproachable,” “the professor was short and abrasive,” “the professor wasn’t very good at answering emails, or wasn’t around.” Those were the days I couldn’t get out of bed, or was giving my lectures on autopilot. Meeting someone new and falling in love “the professor was so energetic and a great lecturer!”, “the professor made class fun and made me want to study harder.” Those were the days I was practically skipping to work.

Teaching is more than giving a lecture. It’s about reaching into a deep reserve of good attitude, if we’re going to be effective. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it’s virtually impossible. But I think it’s worthwhile to check in, and be singularly present in that time and space. Be happy in the classroom because, well, teaching is fun, or it should be. Especially when your kids are singing during breaks.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Classic Classism in Class

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/09/06 at 00:55

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 

I’ve spent the past two years researching and teaching social entrepreneurship, what works, what doesn’t, and how we can help the world’s poor. I’ve beat the drum against the abuses of neoliberalism, and tried to help my students see the links between their actions and the impact they have on the rest of the world, particularly the bottom billion. Own two or more cellphones? You’re increasing the global demand for Coltan and possibly contributing to human rights abuses. Eat meat that was raised on corn? You’re decreasing the world’s food supply and damaging the environment. Etc. Etc.

Last semester a student responded to this high-minded brow-beating with an angry evaluation comment: “Prof. Horn seems to think that we’re all unaware of what’s going on in the world. Perhaps she should realize that some of us have lived through it.”

This student was absolutely right. I had done what I fight so hard to avoid: made assumptions about certain demographics, particularly class. I had treated everyone in the class as though they were all from the same socio-economic background and unaware of how hard life can be for not just the world’s poor, but the poor in our country.

I could be forgiven for this, of course. With rising tuitions and our university’s quest to climb forever higher in the rankings, we’re well on the way to becoming an “elite” school, and by that I mean “elitist.” Many of my students wear clothes and sport handbags that cost more than I earn in a month. A growing number of them are coming to us from international boarding schools, prep schools and advantaged zip codes. We have courted the wealthy foreign students who have the ability to pay full tuition, and come from top political families. They take international vacations during the breaks, and their parents fund most, if not all, of their needs.

But that’s only half the story. There are plenty of working-class kids in our university who have struggled to get here, who will incur massive debts to attend this school, and who will spend their vacations working so they can afford to take that one trip abroad (and thrive on beans and rice). There are the kids who come from Southie in Boston, who work to change their accents so they can better fit in. There are the kids who sleep on friends’ couches or in the library because they have nowhere to live. There are the excellent students who struggled to earn that scholarship, despite working jobs in high school, taking care of siblings, or dealing with ailing parents. There is the remarkable kid who worked on a fishing boat every summer to pay for his tuition and for his elderly parents’ mortgage.

But these students and their needs are often overlooked. When fees are raised on study abroad programs, or no money is available to fund unpaid internships, these are the students who suffer most, because they can’t afford these opportunities. When tuition is raised every year while yet another layer of administrative staff is added (the salaries of vice-presidents can get hefty!), these are the kids we are affecting.

I often get the sense that their presence is invisible to many in our community–that the assumptions that we often make of the poor and underprivileged in this country don’t really fit with reality of the poor among us. These assumptions, which are often expressed in discussions about taxes or government entitlements, reveal an oddly defensive attitude from students or colleagues who are and have been quite privileged: “they” are lazy, “they” are only trying to work the system, “they” spend their money on things they can’t afford while getting benefits, and “they” are taking up valuable real estate. But we forget that when these things are said, there may be someone in that space who has actually experienced the reality of poverty, and “they” aren’t that obvious because many of these assumptions are simply wrong.

But these assumptions don’t go unchallenged because the burden of class is silencing. The working class students, the ones with real hardships, won’t defend themselves against the subtle ways that class discriminates. Instead they will try to fit in as best they can–not buying books, but making sure they have an iPhone. Not eating properly yet buying the “right” clothes. Not buying the proper medications because they can’t afford them. Not explaining to professors that they can’t keep up because they are working 35 hours on top of attending class. Not speaking out in class because they feel as though they aren’t as smart as the other students.

Class is sometimes obvious, but often it’s not. I was that working class kid trying to make my way the best I could and on my own. I never went away for spring break. I worked in the dining hall so I could take home the leftovers; and when I wasn’t studying, I was working another low-paying job. It was not easy, and like many of my students, I’ll be paying off student loans until I die. I am well aware that where I went to school is often used by some colleagues to judge the quality of my scholarship, when it’s really irrelevant.

Do I know how much privilege I enjoy now? Absolutely. I am acutely aware of it whenever I return to my hometown or do my research. But I should know better than to allow these assumptions to go unchallenged in the classroom, especially when they were my own.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Unbalanced Semester

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/05/20 at 00:42

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Here at University of Venus, we talk a great deal about work/life balance — how to maintain the balance between family, private life and the demands of academia, which are many. Looking back at some of my remarks or answers about the issue, I sound fairly confident in my abilities to enjoy my life and get my work finished.

But this semester, I’ve been terribly unbalanced and that unbalance was unhealthy and detrimental to my well-being. Even though my personal life is great — I have a wonderful and supportive partner, a close-knit group of friends, a loving family, an adoring dog and a pretty healthy social life, I became depressed. I gained weight, I stopped going to my yoga classes, I slept late whenever I could, and my writer’s block became overwhelming (so much so that I haven’t kept up with my UofV posts!). How did that happen?

Well, panic.

Panic because I can see the “finish” line — tenure — and yet to get there, I put a great deal of pressure on myself to make certainthat I could get there. We all know that publish or perish trope about academia — it’s been tattooed on our brains since we were little baby graduate students, and the pressure never stops. My third year review letter, for example, gave me faint praise for getting my first book out as I came up for review, but then extolled me to “ramp it up” before coming up for tenure: to write a second book, get some articles out, and generally over-perform. I took that to heart, did more field research, got a book contract, sent out two more journal articles, and created a fairly ambitious research plan.  And taught, a lot.

On top of that, I took on even more service commitments. I served on numerous committees. I said yes to every guest lecture. I played nice with the admissions office. I spoke with student groups, and I had lots of coffees with colleagues.

Getting that second book finished (the conclusion is still evading completion), teaching, and serving, as well as trying to keep a semblance of a personal life, have taken their tolls. The real issue with trying to impress so many people is that you never feel as though you  can impress them, that nothing you do will be good enough, because that finish line called “tenure” often looks like a bar set so high that you can’t possiblybe that good. And the system is also set up to make you believe there are enemies where there are none, so I spent far too much time worrying about comments, sidelong looks and imagined slights.

Instead of going out for a good long walks or to a favorite yoga class, I sat at my desk, forcing myself to churn out work. I ate a lot of licorice (my secret addiction) and my favorite comfort foods. I threw out most of what I wrote, and started again, then again, every time berating myself for not being a writing machine, unlike “everyone else.” I took no joy in the compliments and praise I was getting on my work and instead focused on criticisms, most of which were my own. I had weekly anxiety attacks, and found myself complaining bitterly about my work.

But the end of the semester is a time to reflect. I didn’t finish everything I meant to finish this semester. The book is almost there. I’m still waiting on a revise and resubmit decision on an article.  But—but…I did get an article accepted for publication. I was nominated for a teaching award. I got to know my colleagues in a different way because of all those committee assignments and coffees. I realized the dean actually  likesmy work. I went to a conference and met interesting people who also liked my work…

I took a good long look at myself last week, and took a big long breath. All those pressures and deadlines that made me panicky and anxious were pressures I had put on myself. I was the one who didn’t make time to breathe and I was the one who punished myself. I got on a plane to Indonesia the other day, and I’ll be meeting students here on Tuesday to begin a great program on social entrepreneurship. I took some time out for myself today, to remember why I like doing what I do.  I went to a yoga class by a rice paddy and reveled in my standing balance poses.

I took a big breath and thought, I really do like what I do. I just have to remember not to forget to balance.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

How Journals Put Us Behind the Times

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/02/16 at 01:44

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

I’ve written before about conversations that count — those written artifacts that will count toward tenure or promotion — and I’ve complained that non-traditional writing (e.g. blog posts) doesn’t count for much (or for anything, according to the latest TRIP report on the state of my field). But of course, I still have to play by the rules, such as they are, and I continue to work toward submitting articles to journals and hope for publication.

And then I prepare to wait. And to wait a painfully long time as my work gets stale.

For a journal article to “count,” it must be peer-reviewed. Our academic standards hold that an academic work should and must be subject to scrutiny by our peers, improved by their input and ultimately add to the academic conversation. I agree with that whole-heartedly. The pursuit of knowledge is a social affair and should be respected as such.

But what happens in practice leads to quite different results. The bulk of what we read in journals was written long ago. I am a political scientist (and a news junkie), so I am interested in theory, history and current applications. I want to understand my “now” world within the vast context of the literature. I want to write that way, as well, and have my work be applicable to others’ “now” worlds. Most of all, academics want to be relevant. But that is impossible in the current structure of academic journals.

Let’s talk about the mechanisms of journal publication.

You work on an article for a few months (and if your work is dependent upon field work, as mine is, one article might be the result of several months of work in the field before writing even begins). You send it to a few friends or colleagues, you present it at a conference and perhaps you sit on it for a week or two. So you’re already a year into the initial problem/issue you hoped to address.

You send it to a journal. The journal’s editorial board may take a few weeks to decide whether or not to send it to the reviewers. If they do, that may take another three months. Then, if your article hasn’t been roundly rejected—but needs work—you might get a “revise and resubmit” based on the reviewers’ comments. (I personally enjoy that part, because it’s a refreshing way to look at your work, once you get past your ego.) You have other work to do, so perhaps you don’t return revisions for another 3-4 weeks. The editorial board then sends it out again for the reviewers’ comments. You wait another three months.

During this entire process, you must agree that you will not send the article anywhere else. You are trapped by one journal’s editorial process, without the benefit of “shopping it around,” thus, they have no incentive to move more quickly on reviewing your work. “Under Review” remains on your CV for months.

If you are unlucky, the extra work and time you put into a piece will still not merit its publication. You’ve just lost a year trying to get the piece out. However, if you responded well to the reviewers’ comments and made the required revisions, the editors may decide to publish your piece. Great news! It will come out in the fall edition! The fall of next year.

By this point, the information in the article is well over a year old, perhaps two. The article itself was written a year ago. By the time it will be published, it may be two or three years old.

The “top journals” are the worst in this regard. They tend to be quite conservative when it comes to new literature, and, in the case of my field (International Relations), very little outside the mainstream is considered or published. Many of the articles in these journals are rehashed debates of articles originally written ten years ago. If you were to peruse only those journals, you’d think my field was quite narrow, when, in fact, there is a wide variety of interesting, lively, engaging work being done. But it’s not being published in the places that have the high “impact factors” (which is based on how often a journal or article is cited—of course, if those are the only journals we turn to, there’s a bit of a selection bias, but no matter…)

I rarely look at the top journals these days. I canceled my subscriptions to all but the most relevant—Foreign Policy, for example, is one I will continue to read. Why? I read it because it comes out every month, and it’s timely and interesting. When I want to read what my esteemed colleagues have to say about theory or current events, I turn to the Foreign Policy website, which includes some of the best blogs by the top names in my field. They are talking to each other, and others are leaving important and interesting comments—in effect, “peer reviewing” is happening in real time, and in a transparent way. Intellectual discourse is moving forward at a rapid pace, not in the glacial quarterly publishing of journals.

I still read books when I want deep, thoughtful engagement with a topic. But the process of publishing journal articles is archaic, and provides a false sense of “weightiness” to our work. As long as publishing in the “top journals” is a requirement for tenure or promotion, we will be trapped in this cycle. Our approach to our work will be vastly improved when we can share the immediacy and the excitement of fresh thinking—and recognize that this is a legitimate way of sharing knowledge.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.