to be or not to be

When I tell people I’m a Ph.D. student, the inevitable question is, “What do you plan to do with your degree?” I’m always a little astonished at this, because hey, tenure track academics. What else, right? I am so sure, so fixated on one path for me, that I forget that not everyone does the same.

And so, on Mother’s Day I find myself not wondering what I will do with my degree, but what kind of academic I will be. Seems like a strange subject for Mother’s Day, right? Not really. I have been lucky enough to be gifted not only with my incredible biological mother, but also with amazing, supportive women who have served as mentors along the way. I cannot overstate the importance and impact of a good mentor. Sadly, I lost both my professional mother and my original academic mother to untimely deaths in recent years, and for the most part, I have found myself utterly lost without them. I still don’t know what to do with myself when something amazingly good or bad happens to me. I want to pick up the phone to share the news with them or get their advice, and then I remember that I can’t. I have only their words of kindness and wisdom — and their innate trust in me and my abilities — to take with me and carry me forward. I’m out of the nest and on my own now.

The good news is that I have been lucky enough to have lightning strike a third time in the wonderful friend, adviser, and new academic mother I found almost immediately upon starting my Ph.D.. She’s very different from me, and we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but man, does she believe in me. She is my champion and protector, and she challenges me to do good work. She sees my success as a point of pride for her rather than a threat. Sees me as a legacy she is grooming with no plans to claim credit. It helps her to have her in my corner cheering me on and paving the way. The woman has my back, if nothing else. But there is something else. There’s the advocating and muscling behind the scenes on my behalf. There is the money to attend conferences. There are the chats over lunch. There are the extensive editorial notes on my work, telling it like it is when I can still fix and improve what I have written. The emails telling me that she’s proud of me. The phone calls to say hi, to check on me, to tell me a funny story, to let me know of another student’s award for his dissertation only to be followed by, “That will also be you, my girl. You’re next.” I can’t beat that, and I don’t intend to try. I know when I’m lucky, and I’m loyal to her. I don’t sneeze at people who pick up a sword and stand between me and disaster.

I am acutely aware that I am fortunate to have her. More importantly, I know that I am fortunate to have had every mentor I have had, and they are not easy to find. Most people never get one, and I’ve had three. And the result? The commitment it inspires in me to be a mentor myself. To shape myself to be the kind of academic, the kind of professor who reaches down and pulls students up. Who gathers talent and grooms it. Who values young minds and, even better, is valued by them in return. I have to say that I think deciding the kind of professor you are going to be is just as important as deciding the kind of research you are going to do. A good teacher specializes in more than just her subject area. She specializes in her students. Students are what last and live on long after you are gone. Their success and happiness are the ultimate measure of a teacher’s worth.

I went to a party for a new Ph.D. graduate last night. While there, I noticed something when the conversation turned one faculty member in particular: nobody had anything good to say about her. Despite her seniority and tenure, everyone agreed that, as a teacher and an adviser, she was someone to be avoided at worst, tolerated silently as a means to an end at best. Knowing and working with her was something you gritted your teeth and suffered through like some horrible rite of passage, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can always tell she is the topic of discussion in any group of students by the rolling eyes and hushed tones as though speaking her name will incur the wrath of some black curse on all present. Like a cancer you might catch. She has a reputation for being petty, spiteful, jealous, vengeful, and wickedly capricious, particularly when it comes to other, up-and-coming female academics. She puts down the research topics and theories of others — “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” is the sentence most likely to slip from her lips like a broken record. Because she does not know how to be loyal to her students, she assumes them all disloyal to her, and so no one trusts her, much less likes her. Everyone deems her dried up — unhappy and dissatisfied in her life. Here is this woman in middle age as her career wanes, and not a single student could speak well of her or her research, much less sing her praises as a teacher, mentor, or, worse yet, a person. I feel sorry for her. I don’t think this is what who she wants to be, or even set out to be, but, the fact of the matter is, this is who she is and how she is regarded. She chose this. She made it come to pass. She is a road map for loneliness. She is a cautionary tale.

This experience frames a stark contrast to my late, great academic mother from my master’s degree program. She gathered students around her and her husband and made us a family. Regardless of age, all of her chosen were known as her “kids,” and we wore it as a badge of honor. She took care of us, and we took care of each other and her. We felt safe, secure, and supported both personally and professionally. We knew she would go out on any limb for us, and we would all do the same for her and our brothers and sisters. We still do. We worked our asses off to produce our best in research and in the classroom as a result. Our reputations were her reputation, and we took that link seriously and treated it preciously. We felt enormous pride to have a relationship with such a good heart and a brilliant mind, and her company was warm, loving, and coveted. Students lined up to take her classes and work with her. Anyone on her team broke their necks to go above and beyond on her projects. Her sense of humor was refreshing and second to none. Being her student meant being her friend, and she took the time to know us inside out. She drove us home at the end of the day, took us to dinner, had us over to her house for parties. Knew our concerns, our interests, our competing priorities, our pitfalls, our interests, and our long-term goals. There wasn’t a mean or petty bone in her body. Utterly secure in her own mind and competency, she worked overtime to smooth the way for us and see we got what we needed to succeed. She treated us as equals, as colleagues, and we all flourished under her tutelage as ardent allies and cheerleaders for each other. She was well-regarded by students, by the college, by the university and in her field. You could tell when others were discussing her, because the group would glow and laugh and smile and bond while doing it. She inspired brilliance and love and brought out the best in us all. When she passed, we were all crushed. We leaned on each other in our grief and still do. The friendships she gifted us have only grown stronger and more committed in the wake of her life. She used to say that she viewed her relationship with her students as just a beginning. We see the time we spent with her in this world the same way. As hard is it is that we cannot pick up the phone and call her, she’s still very much with us every day, giving us strength in all we do. We still work hard to do right by her reputation and make her proud. I drop her name every chance I get because I am honored to know her. While she may not have been my actual mom, she will always have had a role in birthing and mothering the woman and academic I am. She is my hero.

And so, when choosing my path as a budding academic and future professor, I am giving a great deal of thought to what kind of mentor I want to be and how I want to lead. Long story short, I want to be a mother. I want to be generous and take the high road. I want to do right by the mentors who molded me and continue their work so that they might live and teach through me. I want to throw my lot in with other brilliant, growing minds. To bask in their glow and be inspired by their ideas and theories. To lead by example. To be a mentor people — particularly young women — trust and want to have. To remain open and supple and happy and funny. To be a port in the storm. To support without ego. To hand over diplomas and put hoods over heads with a loving smile. To attend their graduation parties and be welcome. To be spoken of with love and gratitude when I am not there. To have the honor of seeing students flourish and become my colleagues, too. Not only because I see the ravages of unhappiness in the the professor who burns her bridges, but because I see the satisfying path of love in the legacy of a woman who gave of herself. And really, what are research and teaching but putting a piece of yourself out there to join with others and become something bigger and better than yourself? Sort of like parenting in a way, right? Funny, that.

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it’s not about the hoodie

The internet is been alive with rage and protest in response to the February 26th murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. Martin was a slight boy of 160 pounds armed with nothing more than candy, an iced tea, and black skin. He was gunned down in cold blood by a man with more than ten years and dozens of pounds of advantage on him who walks free and protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that categorizes his actions as self-defense. In the intervening weeks the focus has shifted from Trayvon to his hooded sweatshirt. I have to admit that I find this concerning. Why? Because America — white America — needs to sit up and admit the truth to itself and others: Trayvon was not shot because of what he was wearing. Trayvon was shot because he was black.

It’s all well and good that everyone’s putting on a hoodie and saying “I am Trayvon Martin,” but here’s the fact of the matter, white folks: You’re not, and white guilt isn’t going to change that. As a brilliant friend of mine said recently, “unpack your white privilege.” The hoodie is a red herring. It’s an excuse for America to blame something other than blatant and pervasive racism in this country for the death of this young man and, let’s be honest, thousands, millions just like him. It’s not ok that Trayvon is dead. It’s not ok that his killer walks free. It’s not ok that this country gives one race the power in this country. It’s not ok that this country sees other races and their children as expendable. It’s not ok that we’re not honest with ourselves about it.

Trayvon was somebody’s son. He was a young man with a future he will never realize. We will all miss out on what he could have been, because we can’t see beyond the end of our noses. Sitting in my class discussing race theory last week, the discomfort was palpable, because we can talk gender and class and sexuality until we’re blue in the face in this nation, but we still can’t talk race The class only had one American student of “non-white” decent (although, ethnically speaking, she’s Caucasian, but all that matters in this country is skin color, unfortunately), so the discussion was largely held by white people and a couple of newly-arrived international students who are new to the nuanced complexities of racial relations in America. The young white male leading the discussion was obviously unfamiliar with people not of his own race, and he said the magic words: “Well, I’m not a black person, so I don’t know how they feel.” And that did it for me.

Here’s the deal, folks. People are people. It’s not hard to imagine how they feel. They feel how you would feel about most things. They feel the same rage, helplessness, grief, loss, frustration, isolation, and injustice that any of us would feel when faced with discrimination, oppression, threat, and murder. Everyone loves their children. Everyone is devastated by their deaths. Everyone would come straight out of their skin if their child’s killer walked free. It shouldn’t take a stretch of the white imagination to recognize the black experience in this country. Granted, no one can be an expert on any direct life experience other than their own individual one, but we should be able to recognize when justice is done and when it isn’t. And we shouldn’t tolerate the latter regardless. And we shouldn’t have to focus on what a victim was wearing, whether the case is rape, assault, robbery, or murder. Saying the hoodie got Trayvon killed is no different than saying the low-cut, knee-length cotton sundress I’m wearing today would get me raped walking my dog around my neighborhood this evening. Clothing is a performance. Clothing is an excuse. It isn’t what makes criminals act out and hurt other people. Don’t get mad about the hoodie. Get mad about the person. Get mad about the national mindset that reduces the person to race or gender. Get mad about the truth that Trayvon is dead because he was young, black, and male, and THAT is what makes a person suspicious and somehow less than a person in America still. Today. In 2012. That is inexcusable.

I have to admit that my heart breaks every time I see Trayvon’s face in the media. In that child, I see in it the face of so many boys I know and love. It’s a sweet face. It’s a face I can’t help but think was the light of his family’s lives. I think about the friends he had. The friends he would have had. The people he would have loved. The people who would have loved him back. And how that’s not going to happen now. Why? Because he was young, black, and male, and in America something that we view as criminal. As threatening. As subhuman. As disposable. We need to fess up to that. We need to be honest with the fact that many of us cross the street when we see that coming, hoodie or no, and that’s not alright. It’s so not alright. That young black man is your neighbor. He’s someone’s son. Someone’s brother. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s friend. Someone’s nephew, lover, co-worker, classmate, pet owner, and a million other things that makes him human. His life, his experience is not different from your own, except that he has to live it as a young, black man in an America full of George Zimmermans. God, that has to be scary. Scary for him. Scary for his mother. Again, take a minute and imagine that. It shouldn’t be a stretch. I know I feel bad enough when people cross the street to avoid me with my big dog — and yes, that happens all the time. I know the small white girl isn’t the perceived threat. Well, I can’t tell you, but I can imagine what it must feel like to be seen as the threat yourself all the time, every day, 24/7. It’s got to feel awful. It’s got to color your life. It’s got to make you wish it would stop. And you know what? We need to fucking stop it already. Stop with the guns. Stop with the gated communities. Stop living in fear of the people who live down the street, walk down the street. Stop being afraid of ourselves. Shutting yourselves away and arming yourselves in fear. THAT, my friends, is what got Trayvon killed. When we take the time to know each other and what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves, it’s a whole lot harder to see someone else’s son as something you can shoot. It becomes a whole lot harder to pull that trigger.

I get the hoodie thing. I really do. It’s a brilliant protest icon. It’s a savvy rallying point. It’s something white people can put on and make them feel like they’re doing something. The semiotics of it is something we can all recognize. The sign and the signified work together beautifully in our brains that want to believe we can do something small that will wash our hands clean. But, if we learn anything from this case, if we are going to do Trayvon and the America that killed him any justice, we need to stop relying on what he was wearing to be our rallying cry for justice and start focusing on his humanity — and ours.

It seems simplistic and idealistic to say, but this case, this turning point, needs to be the last straw for us. We cannot let it go. The protest needs to be one of honesty and accountability. We need to not pretend like racism just showed up. Like it was just hiding somewhere in some Southern backwater and we’d forgotten all about it. We need to recognize that it’s here, all around us, everywhere, every day. It’s an experience every person of color lives with every minute of their lives in America. They don’t get to take a vacation from it. It’s their reality. “Post-racial American” is a myth that only exists in the mind of white people, because we are the only ones who can afford to believe in it. We (and by we, I mean EVERYBODY) need to stop treating people of different colors as “others.” We need to stand up for black men and stand against what we keep doing to them. We need to recognize our parts in it. We need to make the change meaningful and lasting.

When I did my first master’s degree, I wrote about an organization of women in the 1930s and 40s who ended lynching as an accepted practice in the South. It was called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and, with what they learned about community organizing from their roles in the preceding Commission on Interracial Cooperation, they worked to make it happen. Go ahead. Look it up. We don’t talk about them today, but we have them to thank for standing up for social justice and instituting social change because they dug in their teeth and they didn’t let go. It can happen, people. All it takes is saying, no. Enough. This man is a man. He is my brother, and I’m not having it anymore.

I am not Trayvon Martin, but Trayvon Martin was my brother. And I say enough. He was a man. He is our loss. And I’m not having it anymore.

no.

just no. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop crying into my voicemail at all hours of the night. stop talking about wanting to come over. stop making me wonder if you are the reason why the dog barks in the night. stop drinking so much. stop self-destructing. stop thinking about me. stop making threats. stop making me consider calling the police. stop. stop. stop. just stop. i’m tired. i’m busy. i don’t need this. you are making me insane. you scare me. go away. i do not care what happens to you. i do not care what you do to yourself. that was years ago. i’m happy without you. you being anywhere in any part of my life, even just my phone, is making me very unhappy. i delete everything. i do not want any part of it. i do not want you to do anything to me or involve me in any way. i did not want to run into you. i didn’t ask you to touch me. that was a week ago. it was coincidental. stop it already. it is not my fault that seeing me made things go from bad to worse for you. i don’t think that is really the case at all. it is not my fault that you are making excuses. it is not my fault that your life is in ruins. it is not my problem. you are not my problem anymore. you hear me?! YOU ARE NOT MY FUCKING PROBLEM.

why are you making yourself my problem?

how not to get into my pants

engage: lame, whiny, inelegant, ventilating rant

hey there, guy! think you might be interested in me? want to get to know me better? think it might be cool if we spent some time together socially? think we might have the makings of a good friendship? think there’s a chance in hell we might actually have sex or even a relationship some day? well, gentlemen, here’s a sure-fire, bonafide how-to guide on to make sure that none of that will ever happen with me in a million years:

  • spend months, even years fawning over me every time you see me, flirting and even touching me, hugging me, stoking my hair, trying to massage my neck, but never doing anything more about it.
  • start non-specifically “asking me out” without presenting an actual invitation to do something planned with you or even requesting my phone number.
  • finally give your phone number to me and tell me to call you if i ever “need anything.” what the fuck does that even mean? also, do this repeatedly.
  • act all mopey that i never called you the next time you see me (protip: i don’t do the calling, particularly when you can’t man-up enough to just ask for my number). i like my men confident and assertive without being dicks. mopey is a sure non-starter, as is putting the responsibility on me to get things rolling when you are the one who was interested in the first place.
  • finally ask for my phone number and get it from me on a night when i’m not feeling well (see: how good i was not feeling) and don’t have any fight in me to put up. also, i had a moment where i figured, “what the hell?” and thought i’d be nice and give something new a try.
  • begin to text me ad nauseum within two hours of getting my phone number with messages like “how are you?” “what are you doing?” “feeling better?” no, i’m not feeling better — you just saw me three hours ago and i was sick as a dog. do you think i ran into jesus giving out free miracles on a street corner on my way home or something? and this despite me telling you that i was busy with plans that night and into the weekend. why the hell would you listen to me and choose to respect my stated boundaries rather than just start sending me messages anyway, even though i had made it clear that i was otherwise engaged for the rest of the evening?
  • text to ask me if i “need anything” at midnight that night.
    a.) don’t be texting me at midnight. you don’t know me that well yet.
    b.) that’s a lame booty call, and i’m not amused.
    c.) i’m freaking sick, and you know it. don’t booty text someone who is sick.
    d.) just don’t ever booty text someone. get some game already.
    e.) even if you are legit offering to bring me something like medicine or food, i’m not going to have some dude i barely know come over to my house in the middle of the night to do that. we haven’t even met for coffee or drinks yet. you’re sure as shit not coming to my inner sanctum when i’m sick in my pjs to bring me gatorade. come on. this is just 100% disrespectful and bordering on invasive.
  • have me wake up the next morning to find that you started blowing up my phone before sunrise with several more text messages like “good morning?” “sleep well?” “feeling better?” and even “what are you doing?” what the hell do you think i’m doing at 6am?
  • never actually pick up the phone and call me. just keep texting me for days and days like you’re 14 asking me if i’m better yet. like i need that. and this in spite of the fact that i have responded more than once to tell you that:
    a.) i just came down with my viral infection, i’m not on the back end of it, and
    b.) it will probably take the better part of the week to feel better, so please stop asking me if i’m better yet. i will tell you when i’m better.
    i don’t know how to be more honest and up front with you aside from telling you to just get lost right off the bat. i was trying to be nice and give you a small chance to redeem yourself.
  • and since you couldn’t take the hint to back off when i told you i’m sick (which was both a warning to you and the hand-to-god’s honest truth), i also told you that i was going out to town to a conference in vegas for several days and having company in town when i returned so i would be off of the map for about a week. i thanked you in advance for being patient and told you that i’d be in touch when everything settled down.what’s your response? what do i get from you as i’m boarding the plane? a text from you warning me to “be a good girl in vegas.” SERIOUSLY? “be a good girl?” i mean, FUCKING SERIOUSLY?! first of all, i’ll do whatever the hell i want. we haven’t even been on a fucking date. you can’t even muster the guts to ring me up proper and use your big boy voice to ask me out, and you’re telling me to behave myself like we’re committed somehow? why the hell do guys do this? you are by no means the first to pull this shit on me, and it pisses me off to no end. fuck you. i’m not your “girl.” i don’t have to “be good.” get over your lame penis insecurity and back the hell up off of the possessive vibe, dad. you don’t have me marked as yours. telling me what to do is a sure way to burn any bridge with me, especially when you don’t even have a place in my life yet.
    moreover, this is what you send me when you know that a.) i’m sick and b.) i’m going away on business. fucking insulting on every damn level. way to treat me like some dumb hoochie and neither see nor acknowledge that i’m a grown adult professional woman with a lot of balls in the air — none of which are yours, i might add. you’re not even on the list and slip-sliding further from the edge of it with each passing text. it also doesn’t help your case that you never bothered to ask why i was going to vegas, what i would be doing there, and what my work was about. no interest in my brains or academic passions. all you were worried about was that some girl whose ten digits you just got might fuck some stranger in her sickened state because she’s a just a woman and therefore so hysterically cock crazy that she can’t be trusted not to jump on the first stiff one she sees once shes get a couple appletinis or some other fruity designer non-drink in her. none of which is the case with me — especially the part where i’d drink anything in a martini glass that wasn’t three olives in ice-cold gin with a bottle of vermouth passed over it (or maybe a manhattan…up).
  • proceed to spend all weekend texting me “hello?” repeatedly. no, i’m not kidding. that’s what you did.  just “hello?” several times a day all day saturday. i can’t even begin to grasp what was going on in your head there.
  • when i finally reply two days later to tell you that
    a.) i’m so sick that i’ve been in the hospital and
    b.) i would really appreciate it if you’d stop texting me because it’s annoying me and not something i want to deal with sick or well, but especially not sick, you fly off the handle wanting to know why i didn’t call you to take me to the hospital (WHAT?!) and then follow up with a day’s worth of passive-aggressive texts that slowly escalate to accusing me of using the sick excuse to push you away. really? i mean, seriously? what? you even SAW me sick, but that’s neither here nor there, just…WHAT?!

first of all, there is probably no behavior in the world that will make me angrier or want to be rid of you (after punching you in the face) faster than passive-aggression. i have to time or patience for childish behavior. got a problem? pony up and say so. if i wanted to be around people who pout, i’d work in day care. spill it, let’s fix it, move on with or without me. i don’t care. but if you want to bitch out and completely fail at communicating your feelings in a forthcoming, productive adult manner, fine. just do it far away from me and not involving me in any way. and this goes for everyone. and i most definitely will not tolerate this from someone who is just trying to get to know me. how is that a way to get off the ground with a new interest? explain that one to me.

i’ve got a couple other people pulling this cop-out crap with me lately, and they’re fools if the think i’m not noticing it. i’ve addressed the vibes they’re sending out directly with each of them at least once only to get denials and more of the continued passive aggression, and i’m kind of fed up. it’s more aggressive than passive, and i’m losing patience fast. i’m torn between calling them out on it once and for all or just deciding that anyone who behaves that way isn’t worth my time and just walking away. i’m every bit as over-scheduled and overwhelmed as they are, so that excuse does not fly as a reason to be rude to a friend. i’ve worked too hard to hoist myself through hell and be in the happy and healthy (well, emotionally, at least) place i’m in now to waste energy playing people’s mental guessing games. that’s not a good use of my time. passive-aggressive i can do without from everyone, but if they’re friends of mine, i love them, so i’m willing to give a little and see if their sudden mood swings pass and we work things out.

you, however, don’t get a pass. i barely know you, and  i’m thinking i don’t want to. if this is how you behave when you’re trying to start some kind of relationship with me even though you can’t manage to even begin with a simple date when i’m totally worth a decent meal and an evening’s conversation, then i’ll just thank you for showing me the crazy right up front so i don’t have to waste any time on you before i shut this down and move on. the fact that i’m taking the time to sit up and write this while i’m as sick and falling over tired as i am right now should tell you how angry i am. i just have to get this off of my chest so i can get some good sleep. something in my gut told me all along that i shouldn’t have bothered giving you a chance. once again, my intuition was spot on. note to self: must remember that.

finally, i’m a big girl who can take care of herself. i do it all the time — and i like it. a little credit, please. i’m happy to be vulnerable with those i trust. i love to let my guard down and let those i love take care of me from time to time. however, do NOT ever treat me like i’m somehow helpless. if the fact that i’m self-assured and able to handle my business is what attracted you to me in the first place, recognize that and stop trying to treat me like a damsel in distress, and don’t get hostile with me for not acting like you’re god’s gift and that i have nothing better to do than drop everything and come running because you sent me some puss-out 160-character text. i’m not going to come slobbering for the answer to all my problems you think you have in your pants. let me let you in on a little secret: you don’t.

you know what the worst part is? you’re not the first to try playing this exact game with me. it’s pathetic. gentlemen, here’s the deal: step up your game or don’t even bother. the least you can do is CALL a girl and ask her out to drinks or the movies if you think you like her. get to know a girl, for the love of mike. no one wants a text relationship. no one wants to be smothered before they even spend an evening with you (or after, for that matter). nothing about a bright, independent professional woman should give you the impression that i will go for that amateur hour crap. i would block your texts if only my phone would let me. as it is, i’m just ignoring you and hoping you’ll get the message and go away. i feel like shit right now, and your nonsense is not helping.

note: i’m no helen of troy, but i have other options. i don’t need this bullshit. and, the truth of the matter is, that i am very, very happy with my own company. thank you for doing your part to make me prefer it even more than i already did.

no. seriously. stop texting me.

end: lame, whiny, inelegant, ventilating rant