Hierarchies of S**t

We talk a lot about toxic work environments and strategies of survival. But there are moments when you just have to leave. And that is what today’s episode is about.

It is sometimes hard to figure out when to stay or when to go. A lot of us are trapped. A lot of us are in situations where we know that we’re being bullied, that we’re being set up to fail, that we’re not valued. But even as we know this viscerally, we second guess ourselves. “If it’s bad here, how can I guarantee that it won’t be worse somewhere else?” we ask. We end up gaslighting ourselves.

On this episode, Dr. Jo Davis-McElligatt (@jcdmce), Assistant Professor of Black Literary & Cultural Studies at the University of North Texas, and Dr. Rita Shah (@TheRitaPhD), Associate Professor of Criminology at Eastern Michigan University, talk about wading through the hierarchies of s**t in academia, and tell us how and why they made the decision to leave, the importance of ultimately prioritizing and loving ourselves.

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Rita Shah 0:00

But shit hit hit the fan the year before. Sorry, we're allowed to fucking swear

Ethel Tungohan 0:04

fuck fuck fuck shit. Oh my god swearing swear it out man.

Rita Shah 0:11

Fucking awesome

Ethel Tungohan 0:17

I'm Dr. Ethel Tungohan, an associate professor of politics at York University. Welcome to Academic Aunties. On this podcast we talk a lot about toxic work environments and strategies of survival. But there are moments when you just have to leave. And that is what today's episode is about. It is sometimes hard to figure out when to stay or what to go. A lot of us feel trapped. A lot of us are in situations where we know that we're being bullied, that we're being set up to fail, that we're not valued. But even as we know this viscerally we second guess ourselves. If it's bad here, how could I guarantee that it won't be worse somewhere else we ask. We end up gaslighting ourselves. Today, our guests tell us how and why they made the decision to leave. And the importance of ultimately prioritizing and loving ourselves. With us today are Dr. Jo Davis-McElligatt That's Auntie Jo for you, and Dr. Rita Shah. That is Rita Massie. Auntie Jo, and Rita Massey, thanks for joining us. And please introduce yourselves.

Jo-Davis McElligatt 1:27

Sure. I'm in Denton, Texas at the University of North Texas, and I'm an assistant professor of Black Literary and Cultural Studies.

Ethel Tungohan 1:36


Rita Shah 1:37

Hi, I'm Rita Shah. I'm associate professor of criminology at Eastern Michigan University

Ethel Tungohan 1:43

Auntie Jo and Rita Massi, you guys are friends. How do you guys know each other?

Rita Shah 1:47

Um, it happened because I screwed up. Um, I we were in a Facebook group years ago, and I was trying to ask a question very inarticulate Lee and just bombed. And Jo was just very patient with me. And I think I was the presumptions one I was like, Jo, I really like you could I be Facebook friends with? And it's sort of just started from there. And yeah,

Jo-Davis McElligatt 2:20

We were also as I recall, like in a similar place, like deeply unhappy with our institution. And so bonding over our mutual misery and desire to leave

Ethel Tungohan 2:32

Both of you at that point were in a similar situation. Can you talk a little bit about that time, both of you, just to kind of figure out where you were then and where you are now.

Jo-Davis McElligatt 2:42

I was at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. And I was on the tenure track. And I was the only black woman in the department on the tenure track. And I was happy with where I was I loved the town where I live, my partner and I had moved to this tiny, rural majority black and Creole town. Our little our son's elementary school was right next door, he had besties I had friends like, but my job the conditions of my employment where I think making me sick. I think that's what I bonded with you over Rita was the physical and psychic toll that my job was taking on me,

Ethel Tungohan 3:29

Rita Massie, when we spoke before this episode, you told me about how you were being bullied? When did the bullying start?

Rita Shah 3:36

Like the bullying started in full force my third year. And like it sort of started to come out a little bit in my third year review, right. So my, my department chair at the time told me she was like, I was a little surprised by some of the things that were said. So I went back and looked at your prior ones. And from what it sounded like it sounds like my prior department chairs basically trying to protect me from some of the nonsense. But what this department chair said is that it was coming up so much more and was so much more frustration that she felt like she couldn't keep it quiet anymore.

Ethel Tungohan 4:12

So who was bullying you?

Rita Shah 4:15

One of my department members. Yeah. Who's well known in the field. Who has a position of prominence in the field. Yeah, I'll let people figure it out if they want to figure it out. And so one of the things that came so I actually don't think this was about me, but one of the things that came out was there was frustration that my classes weren't filling. Except, except, here's the problem. The criminal the criminal justice major at the time, required only two classes that I taught. So even though in my first four years I created 10 new classes They had no reason to take them because the major didn't even have room for elective Oh my god. So there's literally no reason for people to take my classes. Yeah. Right. But But it's my fault that the numbers are low. And so one of the things that they said a response is, well, maybe she could teach the intro Sociology course. But instead of coming to me and saying, here's the situation, would you be willing to help us out? In which case, I probably would have said, Yes. They put it in their annual review and said, Well, she needs to teach this class. And they also put, I actually don't use both of them. I think it was just my bully, put something along the lines of in order to prep perhaps you should sit in on the class one semester.

Ethel Tungohan 5:44


Rita Shah 5:45

Correct Because apparently, since I didn't have a sociology degree, I'm not capable of teaching Marx Durkheim and Weiber.

Ethel Tungohan 5:52

Oh, my God, you're a colleague, you are not a TA. Right? What?

Rita Shah 5:58

Precisely, precisely. And so again, if they had just come to me and said, Would you be willing to teach this? How comfortable? Are you teaching this, I'm happy to walk you through what I do in the class that that would help you prep it. Like if that if that conversation had been calling to colleague, this would have been very different. But the way it came out, I put my foot down. I said, No. And that, I think, is when shit hit the fan. I'm like, everything just started to fall apart. Like they, they were bullying my students to get to me.

Ethel Tungohan 6:28

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you mean, they were..they were getting getting your students...

Rita Shah 6:34

So I had, so we did honors in the discipline, right? The first semester, they would defend their proposal on the second semester, they would complete their thesis and then defend a thesis. Yeah, so sort of like a mini Master's or PhD thing. What we started to do was around like, week, three or four of the semester, have them do like a mini presentation, just to like, make sure we didn't see any major red flags ahead of time. Right. So in that mini presentation, the two sociology students just said that they were going to do a survey, right? No discussion of what the variables were what? Yeah, nothing. They were just we're gonna do a survey, like, cool. So my student gets up there and says that she's going to do a visual analysis of I don't remember anymore, but a visual analysis of whatever the images she she wasn't, she had her research questions were about. And they sort of asking for more details. And I just sat back, because I'm like, I know, you know, the answers. And I am not a hand holder, mentor. I like to give them a chance to try to answer. And after a few minutes, she started crying. And at that point, I was like, I can't even I can't even jump in at this point. Because if I jump in, that I'm attacking my colleagues, and not defending her, when what I because all I really wanted to say was like, Y'all, you didn't ask these questions of the other person, we just drop it. Yeah. And I actually told her at one point, I sat her down, I was like, what I need you to understand this is not about you, this is about me. And it's not fair to you. But I need you to understand that because I don't want you to keep taking this personally, because it's really not about you. And then she started crying even more, because she felt bad for me. And I'm like, no, like, no, she's like, it's just yeah. And I had other students who like my last year, I asked them flat out was like, I don't like I don't understand why I've never been able to get get students take my classes. And one of them was like, you want to know the truth? I was like, What do you mean? And she said that she found out that apparently, one of my colleagues, the bully was telling students up to a class. Supposedly, I don't know if it's true, but that's what she had heard

Ethel Tungohan 8:41

Like, why would the student make it up? Right? Like, oh, my God,

Rita Shah 8:45

Right. I don't have a reason to believe that the student would make it up either.

Ethel Tungohan 8:48

Oh, my gosh, Rita Massie, this is like awful. I am. So Oh, my goodness. So I guess another thing I wanted to ask both of you like hearing a little bit about these journeys is, when did you figure out that you needed to just like leave.

Jo-Davis McElligatt 9:03

I had gradually over the time that I was there figured out ways to do what I needed to do with students. I was still struggling for my colleagues to assign basic courses to me, like Can I please have a section of black studies to teach? They wouldn't assign it to me and I still struggle with that. I over the course of the nine years that I was there, directed or served on 45, PhD and MA committees. 45.

I was on every committee known to man. Name a committee. I was on it. The dean of the graduate school who's a really wonderful person, but she asked me to help her and the diversity had developed like a safe place for marginalize grad students. And that became like really important to me. But it was uncompensated labor. And at the time, I didn't even have the language to ask, but can I get a question release? Can I get more money also, I found out because their salaries are public record, that there's only one person getting paid for swimming in the entire West. Yeah, in spite of like this incredible, almost insane output that I was doing. So one of my students, you know, several of my students and this is also a top of this is a brag like, five I think, black women that studied with me, there are now professors at Spelman amazing University of North Carolina, Wilmington, to Wayne. And so I feel like I'm doing the necessary work for my students. They're getting employed, their dissertations are getting published. There, you know, it should be fine. So I wait until I get tenure. I'm the chair of the graduate faculty, right. Obviously, I have to do more service. And so I asked them to please consider making Africana Studies and an actual area that my students don't have to ask permission to ticket for that. Like, have I not proven. Oh, another problem is that these courses that my students needed, like you Rita, I didn't they weren't part of the curriculum. They weren't a requirement. So I was doing multiple unpaid independent studies. So out of a duty to my students, I was often it was so much uncompensated labor service. And then I mean, just, oh, I offered a three, three loads. I was getting paid too little I had to teach in the summer, in the winter. So one year, I taught a 3143. I taught him every session. Every oh my god, right. So like, I was also publishing at this time, like I edited a collection, and I published like, I don't know, nine or 10 hours. So I was being very, very fucking productive. Perfect Angel. Yeah. A star. Thank you. Oh, my God. Thank you. So then I asked them at the faculty meeting, can you please make Africana Studies a standard area, here's my evidence. And they said, they didn't like the name. They thought it should be African American. They argued about it. In front of me, they said, Actually, one person said they didn't know if this is something that wanted to invest in, going forward. And so if we make it a standard area, that's a signal that we have to do something with that. And then they made me wait for this last meeting of the winter, they made me wait over winter break, so they could quit. Think about it. And so that's when I came home. And I told my partner like I think it's time for me to leave. Because after all of this work, all this effort in diversity work, in building up black studies in the history of Ernest Gaines. Being here doesn't mean anything if I'm an effective, I'm the first black woman to get tenure in this department. In the history of the institution, I was liking this, and they still never it never clicked. So I went home and then I immediately went on the market.

Ethel Tungohan:

So it was just kind of that moment that kind of made you go...

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

Yeah, I feel like it broke me because I was really not feeling well. I was diagnosed with OCD when I was in grad school. And I was really struggling to get like quality psychiatric care, Louisiana, everything's kind of more difficult there. You know, I was living in a rural place. There were doctors, you know, and I certainly I wasn't, isn't feeling like myself. So I realized that if I keep working here. I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to be as mentally healthy as I believe it could be I didn't believe that there was ever going to get any better. And I was just I was concerned that I would die young is a very weird feeling. But I was like, I feel like I'm not gonna make it here. If I can, especially not with this bullshit

Ethel Tungohan:

um, so I guess you know, both of you are now kind of in new jobs. Um, oh my gosh, I feel like I have to put a big warning for this episode. But if we use the higher piece of shit like, you know, first job, boom, like, you're just swimming, swimming in it. Yeah, but now it's like, little shits. I don't know, like, like, 10 you can handle it like, I mean, what's the second job? Like is it is it it's it sounds like it's better, right?

Rita Shah:

It. It's definitely better and I do want to I mean, to Joe's point, like, part of what made leaving the last place so hard is I am the same way I loved my students there. I think once I figured out how to make the information, click with them, things did get better. And like, I was involved with the queer community on campus for the first time ever, but like I was starting to mentor some of them and like, so like, and they were very generous about helping me better understand their issues, so I could be better advocates for them. You know, like I, I still remember one of my favorite students was actually a poly size student, who took four classes with me, even though he hated the content, but he said that he liked me. And he liked the challenge that I gave him. And I was like, this is this is why I do what I do. Right. Like, like, so. Yeah, I mean, same with Joe, like, I, I think about the students a lot. And I really do I love that part of it. I love to I had really good friends. So I'm still good friends with other colleagues outside of that. But yeah, I mean, I guess I would say like in terms of hierarchy of shit, like I would say, in the last one, I was literally drowning under the shit. And this place, I can at least keep my head above the shit...

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

I feel like I know what my boundaries are. I know, when I first started a decade ago, I was like I, you know, they were I would put up with tolerate that now I'm just there's no way that I'm going to do this with you.

Rita Shah:

100% 100%.

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

So I feel more walking into this position, like I know, what is required of me, and I know what I'm doing. And so I feel like that makes a huge difference. For me.

Rita Shah:

Some of the differences for me are like, I will say the one good thing that I take away from my last position is I have such a better understanding of whiteness that I would have otherwise, right like I I've been very lucky most of my life that I have not had, I mean, not to say that I haven't dealt with, like racism and sexism, but not at that level in a way that I know a lot of our other colleagues have. And so that plays definitely, like, got me up to speed very quickly. And so now when I confront it, I'm like, oh, no, no, no, no, we're not having this. That's not happening. That's not to say that we don't have some people in department who can be bullies. I mean, we're big enough department that like, statistically, I feel like there's gonna be like one or two people that are gonna try to push people around, right like that. But I think that's true of any organization that has 20 ish people. Right? You're just gonna get personalities that are very strong like that.

Ethel Tungohan:

100% Yeah.

Rita Shah:

Yeah, so like, it's, it's this shit that I expected, which I think is part of why I'm able to keep my head above it. Because I, I can almost predict what's going to happen and what the response is going to be. And so I know how to prepare and like, what to do?

Ethel Tungohan:

Absolutely. How about you anti show like, you know, you're wearing a hazmat suit, you're a little bit more sounds as though you're a little bit more guarded and more about setting boundaries. But also, having experienced what you did in your first institution, you have lessons that you've learned is that...

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

Yeah, that's absolutely true. I think guarded is a good word. You know, I just I know that in the private sector, you're not expected to be life friends with everybody that you work with. You're, it's a job. And so wanting to have, I'm going to be in an English Department. It's a huge department, like 50 full time faculty and 100 grad students, and just, it's massive, but I need to make certain that they don't take too much of me, like I have to give me to my students to my research. You know, service that matters to me like I'm at the advisory board for Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies. Yeah, I get for me, I just don't want to give them too much of myself. I need to make sure that I have room left over for me. And, you know, I work out every day. I make sure that if I want to take time off to go on a field trip with my kid, I do it. Yes. Yes. Just like basic things. If I don't feel well, I don't. I don't force myself. It's no I did give it 10 years to come here because I have to write a monograph. Yeah. And even not felt like an exciting challenge because I feel it doesn't feel like I don't feel panicked about it, I don't feel anxious about it, just something that I'm gonna sit down and do my job. And that feels completely different. Because before it was like my job was in my life in this complete and total way that I couldn't breathe or think. And even when I want to time off, it was still in the back of my mind. And here, when I'm done working, or I don't want to deal with, with my job, I simply don't. I'm not. I think that comes from like, the wisdom of that experience that I gained there. I'm never no matter who I ever worked for, again, I will never give them as much time and energy for my spike myself ever again.

Rita Shah:

I just want to echo literally, all of that. And I would say to anyone who's listening, if you take anything away from this conversation, is to figure out your boundaries early and set them because to to somebody that Joe said, this is just a job, it does not define us. It is not who we are, it is something that we do. And yeah, being an academic is an identity I have, but the job is a job. It is not my life. And and I've Same as usual. Like I think after this I've been I've been so much better about my boundaries, like people asked me to do things. And I actually say no now. And it's funny because I actually went from a three, three to four furloughed, but I'm doing way more research now than I was before, because Because I mean, I'm not prepping a new class literally every semester, like I can just update what I've been doing. Like there are things that are built in that actually allow me to do it. But But I can also say no, like if someone asked me to do something, and I can legitimately say I just don't have time right now, like, they're not going to think I'm evil incarnate, they're gonna respect that boundary, they're not going to think that I don't care about our students, they're respecting that I'm trying to be my best self for our students. Right? Like, I now have something in my syllabus about this is when I answer emails, and this is when I don't. And you can send me an email. I'm not answering it, I might see it. I'm not answering it, like bottom line. Like, but but I think also, the other thing I hope people take away is that like, we have to make our boundaries clear in ways that I don't think is the case outside of academia, like how, what do you mean, it's, like, I should not have to tell students that I don't answer emails. Or like, or like, I answer emails from the hours of eight to five. Right? Like, I feel like in other and other sectors, if you're working on a big project at the moment, maybe but otherwise, like, there's an expectation that your weekend is your weekend, and your evening is your evening. But I don't know about I don't know about the two of you, but I would literally get emails that were sent to me at like two in the morning. And then I get another email like six in the morning that are like, Why didn't you answer my email?

Ethel Tungohan:

Listen, like cuz, cuz I was sleeping yo. So the private sector analogy or not even the private sector, a non ac, because, you know, my partner works for the government, right? Like, you know, any other industry, but academia at least establishes that there are boundaries that workers that protect workers. So like, Yeah, and you know, everything, everything both of you are seeing resonates so much. And I do want to circle back to something that was said earlier that I think we need to emphasize more, which is that, you know, both of you left tenured positions, right to come to New institutions. And one of the things anti show said was, you know what, I was excited by that, and for me, yes, like, really? Because then that's a lot more work, but like, how can you? Can you I guess, starting with Auntie Jo, like, you were excited by this challenge, rather than being intimidated by it, because it's such a huge thing to do.

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

It is a huge thing to do, but I also had never been in a position at my former job, or I could ever actualize. To me leaving that job and deciding, okay, I'm going to take a gamble on myself and what I want for once, which is like I want to spend the next you know, so and the pandemic you know, obviously fucked everything up but aside as like stressful experiences bed. It's been nothing as bad as the previous nine years were.

Ethel Tungohan:

100 per cent. Oh my god. Yes. You know what I am feeling all the feels yet again in this conversation. And I think a lot of listeners will feel this thing too because a lot of people are afraid to leap and I think that's true for a lot of bipoc women, because we've been socialized into being grateful and making it work. I mean, you know...

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

It's gratitude, and then also being told that, you know, I would feel so much guilt because I'm the only one and they need me. And then the communities like we love you and you know, like my it just used the the more time you spend there, the more you can feel yourself integrated. So like leaving that felt felt sad in some ways, but I need to do that for myself, I deserve a chance to finish my book if I want.

Rita Shah:

For me it also wasn't just like, feeling sad, because I was the only and like, abandon fit. Like, I kind of did feel like I was baiting my students. But like, I also realized, in hindsight, I had internalized all the critiques. It was kind of becoming an abusive relationship for me, I was starting to truly internalize all the things of like, I'm not going to get another job. So I'm not producing enough research. I'm not good enough. I'm like, like, I became very territorial about being the criminologist, even though I'm a firm believer that criminology is interdisciplinary. And so I seriously was, like, I was terrified that I was becoming an academic that wouldn't be able to make that kind of transition.

Ethel Tungohan:

It seems to spell and yeah, it's like, you've internalized the values that they're trying to impose on you. And you're kind of Yes, becoming like, you know, you're becoming entrenched in what they're trying to make you think of yourself.

Rita Shah:

This saving grace for me was, pretty much anybody I talked to outside of my department was like, read a year amazing what you're doing is amazing. Like, almost everybody outside of my department saw my worth saw what I was trying to do saw like the value what I was trying to do with my research, and thankfully, all of them counteracted the negative, right, and like, helped me realize that like, and again, my friends outside of the institution, too, right. So like, helped me see that? No, no, it's not me. It's them.

Ethel Tungohan:

For listeners who are feeling really trapped and just feel like, you know, what, should I just suck it up? Because at the end of the day, things are okay. I guess I don't know. What advice would you give to people who are just trapped or feel that they want to leave or don't know if they should make the least?

Rita Shah:

I think one advice I would give is just sit back and ask yourself, are you happy? Because if you're not happy, then nothing is worth it. It's not worth your mental health. It's not I mean, I gained 20 pounds of that job. 20 pounds, right? I wasn't physically healthy. I wasn't mentally happy, healthy. I was not happy. And you can deal with a lot if you're happy. So that's the first advice. The second advice I would give is, it is never worth it. Just period it is never worth it. If you feel trapped, if you feel like it's a nowhere job. I understand the fear because I have the exact same fears. But that's what so I'm just I'm just one of those big picture planners. So like I literally had three different plants. So if you know like, if you're if you're feeling scared, then sit down and figure out what what would make you not scared, right? What are the options that would make you feel okay about leaving, and then figure out how to make those options happen.

Ethel Tungohan:

That's beautiful. Thank you, Auntie Jo any advice to give for people who feel trapped?

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

One of the things that I think is under discussed is the problem of shame. Which is that it feels to you know, shameful to, for some reason to admit that it's not working out for you. You don't like it? Especially when you're surrounded by white people who are like, hey, because I was born here, you know, I belong here. So I think by confronting my anxiety about the shame, I was afraid I was going to feel or maybe what feel about leaving a position where I may not immediately walk into another tenured position. I think that really doing some deep thinking about why we're encouraged to feel shame when we take care of ourselves, how that shame keeps us support in it, and keeps us sort of slogging through these in many instances, these departments are not invested in really doing right by the people of color they hire, they simply need somebody to be to occupy Yes, missionary position. And they're perfectly happy to allow you to be functionary. And at that situation that you're in is not ever going to get any better. And there's no shame in leaving that. In fact, it's powerful to leave. So, I have this poster that I bought. It's an Audrey Lorde quote, and it's like right at my line of sight and it says when I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important. Whether I'm afraid, and so I meditate on that whole time, I think that's where a lot of the source of my strength has come from is from black feminist thinkers who remind us that, you know, being silent won't save you, that being meek won't save you that even your fear won't save you. Um, I also would say that, for me, a major motivator was that I just didn't feel well. And I think we're also really willing to feel sick as just a sort of consequence of like, what we may consider to be justifiable stress. And I don't agree. My own mental health and my physical health, like my ability to be in my body. It's my body, you know, I'm not just a brain I also have my brain is in the body. I also another factor that I think is that I think we can become like really, like use to our own the conditions of our own despair, civic and to feel like normal. You know, like, this is just been going on for so long. It's like, I don't even remember a time when I felt like it wasn't like this. Yep.

Ethel Tungohan:

Oh my god, I'm so I'm feeling it. Oh, my God. Yes. Sorry. Yeah. Because, yes,

Jo-Davis McElligatt:

and happiness is like a vague thing. But it's real.

Ethel Tungohan:

Thank you both so much. This has been honestly so wonderful and so cathartic and is making me think about pathways for my own career. Right. So I truly appreciated both of you taking the time to talk to us, Rita Massey, Auntie Chu, are you on Twitter? How can people kind of know more about you and your work? And other things?

Rita Shah:

Sure. Thanks for having us. Up. All this has been this has been phenomenal. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. And I hope it's been helpful to others. You can find me on Twitter at TheRitaPhD. And then for the more fun side of me, I'm on Instagram, you can see my photography there for the non academic side. And that's the_rita_photography.

Ethel Tungohan:


Jo-Davis McElligatt:

Um, yeah, thank you so much. This was great. I'm my handle for Insta and Twitter are the same jcdmce.

Ethel Tungohan:

There are many things that I learned from this conversation. But the one thing that I hope people remember is that it is okay to leave. We cannot and we must not give all of ourselves to institutions, especially those that send signals to us every day that they do not want us. Rather than thinking about leaving as failure. Think about leaving as an opportunity. Think about leaving as freedom. That's academic aunties for this month. We've received so much great feedback from all of you about the show and could really use your help to get the word out to even more people. If you haven't already, rate and review us on Apple podcasts. It really helps. If you know someone who might like the show, let them know. If you want some anti wisdom, we'd love to hear from you. Leave us a message at academic Auntie's dot com slash ask or tweet us at at academic auntie. And your question may be featured on a future episode of Ask an academic auntie. Today's episode of academic Auntie's was hosted by me, Dr. Ethel Tungohan and produced by myself and Wayne Chu. Tune in next time when we talk to more academic Auntie's. Until then, take care. Be kind to yourself, and don't be an asshole