Wednesday, April 29, 2020

#SocAF – A Movement in Self and Communal Love.

 by Korey Tillman
Five years ago, I was in an airport resting my feet on my guitar case when a man walked by and asked, “Oh so you play?” I responded, “Yeah, I’m just a novice.” Without hesitation the man sternly replied, “No you are a novice.” From this brief exchange, I learned the impact of “just,” a simple four-letter word.
Higher education revealed to me how harmful that impact could be during the first year of my PhD program in sociology. In a closed door meeting with prospective graduate students, a member of my cohort pointed to me and said, “he’s just a master’s student,” before continuing to tell the group that the reason I was able to contribute to seminars at my level of sophistication was due to me reading a sociology 101 textbook the summer before entering the program. The word “just” relegated me to a less-than status because of my matriculation as a bachelor’s to PhD student, while simultaneously attributing my intellectual abilities in graduate-level seminars to a single undergraduate textbook.
Impostor syndrome is a product of how we understand ourselves within spaces that continually encourage self-doubt, and cultivate interactions that deny our self-worth. To challenge impostor syndrome and reshape how scholars come to understand themselves and support each other, colleagues and I are employing another simple four-letter word: love.
My greatest accomplishment was having a community who loved me before I knew what love was—impostor syndrome disrupts your connection from such a community. #SocAF, a double entendre meaning “Sociology Affirmations” or “Sociology as Fuck,” is a Twitter-based movement to change how scholars come to understand themselves in the field of sociology and academia broadly. Our aim is to problematize and eliminate the idea of impostor syndrome, moving from a deficit model of understanding ourselves and our scholarship, to a model of self-love and communal affirmation.
There is no ideal sociologist or definition of success, yet the culture of academia causes scholars to compare themselves to fictitious standards, prompting feelings of inadequacy. The inimical wave of impostor syndrome has washed over our discipline, only to recede and leave scholars soaked with self-doubt and adverse mental-health effects. Faculty and graduate students of color, who already wade through the marginalizing waters of structural oppression and microaggressions, stand at the shoreline of their careers with an incessant hesitation to set sail. Below, I outline the objectives that guide our group as we navigate this movement to reconceptualize our self-worth outside of an ivory tower buttressed by American Individualism and painted with faded notions of meritocracy.
Deconstruct the myth of the ideal type. If I was to ask scholars to entertain the question: who is the greatest sociologist of all time? The debate would be longer than the itemized budgets our departments request before conference travel. By emphasizing success as amorphous, personal, and achievable, we begin to set realistic expectations that assert our agency within the context of a publish or perish paradigm.
Uplift non-traditional “wins.” In our view, if a student gives you a compliment on your teaching, that is equally as important as receiving an NSF or Ford fellowship. Prestigious awards and accomplishments rest upon a zero-sum logic, promoting winners and losers. Yes, receiving support for your research is great, yet in order to combat the hierarchical logic of achievements, we must laud the everyday progress. Especially during these precarious and daunting times of COVID-19, to clear your inbox or to move that blinking cursor of Microsoft Word forward with conviction is no small feat—let’s not treat it as such.
Reclaim our positionality. We all have a story and sometimes those stories connect and guide us to engage in fascinating research. I use my lived experience as a Black man raised in a community flattened by mass incarceration to build abolitionist research projects within the sub-field of radical criminology. Instead of shying away from our embodied experiences, we can learn a lesson from women of color feminists, and leverage those experiences while committing rigorous and meaningful research.
The possible impact of #SocAF is immense. We envision the ivory tower rebuilt with the “love ethic” expressed by bell hooks. We anticipate the release of marginalized scholars from the shorelines of hesitation, to navigate the uncharted waters of intellectual innovation and healthy productivity. We foresee transformation. 
Every Wednesday on Twitter from 1pm – 3pm EDT, our base of scholars convene to post about their accomplishments from the previous week and to uplift the accomplishments of others using the hashtag #SocAF. Below we have placed our Twitter handles in hopes that you will join us in changing the discipline, and academia at large, by demonstrating to someone else the impact of a simple four-letter word.

The #SocAF Collective

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Advice to students: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Repost from the Harvard Gazette

Focal Point

Anthony Jack

QUESTION: If you were to write a letter to your students, what would you want them to know?
Never, ever be afraid to ask for help. This is not something that I say just to say it. Life has a way of making you practice what you preach. It is not always easy, but, for me, it is always necessary.
At 11:43 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2015, I sent an email. And it changed my life.
I had been sitting at my desk in Mather House, where I was a resident tutor, for about two hours drafting and redrafting a letter. It was a note to William Julius Wilson, my adviser. By my last year in graduate school, we had had plenty of meetings, both serious and fun, and worked on different projects, but this email felt different. I needed his help to realize a dream I dared to have: becoming a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Three years to work on “The Privileged Poor” and to be immersed in an interdisciplinary community of really smart people, what could be better?
The hurdle: You have to be nominated before you can apply. In an overly wordy email, I asked Bill if he would nominate me. Verbalizing this dream made it really real. I finally hit send. In what felt like an age, even though it was only a couple of hours later, I got a reply. “I would be happy to write a letter for you.”
I was invited to apply; I interviewed; and I was ultimately invited to join the society.
We need to recast what it means to ask for help. It is not just about assistance on an assignment or an extension on a paper. It is an invaluable tool in one’s toolkit. Too many people are taught to see asking for help as a sign of weakness, of unpreparedness, or worse, that one does not belong because he or she cannot hack it alone. It inspires imposter syndrome in some, mistaking the need to ask for any kind of help as indication that a mistake was made and that you should not be here. Many liken it to something remedial. They have it wrong.
“Enlisting the support or guidance of others is also a skill that must be honed. You will often need to knock on 20 doors before the first will open. But when it does, it can be transformative"
Help-seeking is a mark of strength. I see it as a sign that you are wise enough to know that you are approaching the edge of your own understanding about something or about to embark upon a path that is better (and more effectively) charted with company than alone. Seeking out such support is how you secure the bag.
No one does anything all on their own. Writers have editors. Scientists have collaborators. Artists have workshops. Athletes have coaches. And we all had, have, and will continue to have teachers who guide us along the way. Let’s face it, the story of the “self-made, solo star” is as big a myth as meritocracy and the boogey man.
But seriously, enlisting the support or guidance of others is also a skill that must be honed. You will often need to knock on 20 doors before the first will open. But when it does, it can be transformative. Unfortunately, not all of us hear this message. Many of us, especially those of us who are the first in our families to go to college and/or are from lower-income backgrounds, are often taught “not to bother people” when we get to school. “Just keep your head down and do good work if you want to be noticed,” we hear from dedicated family members who want the best for us. We’ve heard this so often that sometimes there is a tension we feel between heeding the advice of those who worked and sacrificed to get us to College and working with the new folks who want us to come to office hours soon after we walk through the College gates. Loved ones are not wrong, per se; after all, it is how they keep their jobs and sometimes get promoted: by not being the person who raises a fuss.
But the rules are different in college and graduate school. Making oneself — and one’s needs — known is part of the hidden curriculum, that system of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations. Yes, there is more work to be done in demystifying the hidden curriculum. And I for one am committed to pushing universities to question what they take for granted about what students know and what they can afford. But in the interim, understand that this is the reality. Share this revelation with your family or support network rather than omit it from those phone calls that bridge home and Harvard, even if only for a minute. It will help you align what is expected of you at School with the advice you get from outside the gates.
I know that growth can be painful, so I’ll end with this: Therapy is affirming. It is not just to help you through the bad times, for too often believing the good is just as hard. It is about investing in oneself and being ready for what life has in store for us.
Never, ever be afraid to ask for help.

Assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows