Looking Up: Imagining Tangible Futures and Active Academia

Looking up is often a difficult task, particularly in graduate school. While the inevitable questions at holiday parties of “What do you want to do when you’re done?” impart their reliable dose of existential dread, taking classes and writing a dissertation make it easy to keep your head down. So often in my graduate career I have been focused on getting to the end of the quarter, the submission deadline, or the eventual dissertation defense, missing the forest for the trees. This year, it has been a bit different. While there are certainly days and weeks where I am simply putting one academic foot in front of the other, unable to look beyond the day’s to-do list, there has been a reminder every month that there is more to this work than the next conference or R&R. The ICPSS Colloquium has brought me out of my silo, connecting me to scholars, thinkers, and authors that I may never have encountered otherwise. Not only has it connected me to these individuals; it has connected me to the broader world of what life can look like after my eventual dissertation defense. In other words, it has helped me to look up.

The first colloquium presentation of the academic year was particularly impactful for me on that front. Dr. Jennifer James spoke, presenting on her community-engaged health research inside of California’s women’s prisons. Two things stuck with me from that conversation. First, Dr. James’ deep engagement with her own lived experience, as well as communities, abolition work, and applied sociology, clearly demonstrates an active form of academia to which I aspire. And second, the possibility of an active academic trajectory made tangible by seeing a graduate of my own program in a funded, engaged academic career.

In attending the first colloquium session, I was struck by how Dr. James’ work forefronts deeply engaged methodologies and theoretical grounding, much of which is rooted in her own lived experience. A Black feminist scholar, she writes and researches in a long tradition of critiquing larger sociocultural structures—including -isms such as racism, sexism, queerphobia, and institutions such as the legal and healthcare systems. Her work deeply informs her field, delving into large-scale topics such as Black bioethics and the need to include incarceration in that conversation, as well as making a case for  the expansion and reimagination of compassionate release. Dr. James is also the co-director of the Emancipatory Sciences Lab at UCSF, which fosters research on inequality and power, and seeks to center healing and the “reality of a just society.” This active engagement with systems of power and the incorporation of advocacy is not as common as one might expect in the social sciences, and I am grateful for the work that Dr. James has done to further pave the path toward active academia for the students like myself who come after her. This work demonstrates a means of doing academic work that makes a difference outside of the ivory tower. While I have, of course, known such means existed and have tried to adopt such outlooks in my graduate work, seeing someone who was in similar shoes as me not long ago makes this path forward feel much more tangible. Seeing someone live out their values through active academic work, engaging with systems of injustice and working to change them, is a bolster to my own aspirations.

This tangibility of seeing someone walking the path ahead of me with grace and engagement is the second thing that stuck with me. Seeing a recent graduate of my own program present impactful, engaged, and funded work was not only inspiring but eye-opening. It can be easy to feel rather gloomy about my future as a sociologist when new, critical, global issues seem to arise on the daily and the qualitative work our sociology program specializes in is historically less funded, and (wrongfully) considered less empirical or reliable, in the scientific world. Dr. James, along with other ICPSS scholars we had the opportunity to hear from this year, have found or forged a path forward and are living out their values, doing important, engaged work. Seeing Dr. James’ success makes future career options feel tangible and reachable in a way that they haven’t before. ICPSS talks from other scholars built on this feeling of feasibility, showing me other people, other paths, and other means of engaging with academic work. Through the connections, exposures, and knowledge of the ICPSS Colloquium this year, I feel I am better able to see the forest, not just the trees. The ICPSS Colloquium in general, and Dr. James’ talk in particular, have helped to look up and see the path ahead as well as those around me. 

Rebecca Wolfe is a doctoral student in the Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences at UCSF.