grad school · mental health · people pleasing · PhD

Fighting Extra-Academic Burnout

Are you experiencing scholar date burnout?

Let me explain. A recent article posted in Inside Higher Ed asks scholars experiencing such burnout symptoms as physical exhaustion, depression and/or anxiety, and cynicism to take themselves on weekly scholar dates. Grad school, particularly the dissertation-writing phase of grad school, can be painfully isolating. Often students take on off-campus jobs or teach at a different school, some prefer the hermitic lifestyle of working at home, others (like me) function as nomads, drifting from library to library for fresh thrills and different local coffee blends. As I blogged about almost a year ago, writing a dissertation is as much a psychological battle as it is an intellectual one, and depression and anxiety are endemic to academic departments: something many of us deal with, but few of us talk about, because to admit mental distress is to admit weakness and inadequacy and inability to cope with the ubiquitous strains of the profession. It’s survival of the fittest, and in this climate, “survival” might mean living out the rest of one’s life as an underpaid and overworked contingent laborer ( I am a jaded sixth year PhD student, hi!).

With the intellectual and social paucity of late stages of the PhD, what Heather VanMouwerik calls “scholar dates” sound like great ideas: these are outings, such as movie nights, park wanders, cultural experiences, and cafe lingers, that feed our intellectual and creative sides. I appreciate that the Scholar Date seems here to meet the Self Date; VanMouwerik instructs us to “Do it alone” rather than feeling distracted with the needs and experiences of other people. The concept of selfdating transforms hanging out alone and feeling sorry for yourself into a deliberate, intentional, and personally rewarding choice. Friends have told me that just giving alone-time this label seems to make a difference.

What makes self dates and scholar dates so useful is that my only obligation is to myself, and this time becomes sacred and restorative. But I’ve found that there’s somewhat of a slippery slope between scholar-dating and succumbing to professional obligations. Lately, I’ve possibly been overcompensating for the aforementioned mental health stuff by overloading my schedule with what might clumsily be categorized as scholar dates (all conducted of my own volition, though not always alone). There is a point at which the scholar date becomes avoidance, and I fear I’m hovering around that threshold.

It’s easy for this to happen, because scholar dates are often justifiably important, and I am lucky enough to live in a city that affords ample opportunity for intellectual engagement through cultural field trips. In the last week alone, for example, I travelled out of the city to sit in on a friend’s lecture on King Lear and the public humanities; I saw Henry IV Part I at BAM after a sick friend offered me a free ticket; and I spent an afternoon at an academic conference unrelated to my dissertation. I did a minor in early modern drama, right? So I should definitely keep up with the Renaissance drama scene in New York (see also: Revelation Readings at Red Bull theatre). I’m trying to develop a DH profile, right? So these sessions on teaching with digital maps are totally necessary to my intellectual development. And then: I care about maintaining a vibrant intellectual community in my department, right? I should definitely attend this talk on racial politics, since I can tell they are worried about getting bodies in seats. I care about the future wellbeing of this country and entire world, right? I should probably attend this Bernie Sanders rally and perhaps sign up to do some phone-banking and flyering and house calls and omg, possibly the whole election that I can’t vote in rests on my shoulders!! Oh, yeah, and I should go for a solo walk to the river because it’s spring and whatnot. And, and….the list goes on.

I know that I may not be able to remain in academia forever, and if I don’t (or even if I do), I don’t want to look back on my time in New York City and remember only the uncomfortable subway encounters and cockroaches creeping out from underneath my fridge. Not only do my extracurricular scholarly activities feed into my constellation of personal and scholarly interests, but they also mitigate anxiety and despair about the future, and help connect me with various local communities. But even these activities can be taken too far and become more about obligations and people-pleasing than self care.

Let’s not forget that as women, we face pressure to say yes to everything–to live full, rich, balanced, lives, to spring out of bed and go to sunrise yoga classes before heading to campus, to stay connected with our friends and communities while keeping on top of our research, remaining available to students, and grading dozens of final papers. Yeah. That’s not happening. Let’s let slumptimes be slumptimes, and learn when to say no to even those activities that might help expand our intellectual development in new ways. Let’s learn how to view “no” as not only a perfectly acceptable but also commendable choice. The bernout is real.

feminist communities · grad school · making friends · mental health · solidarity

Healthy Friendships Within Academia

Departing from the Women, Academia, Sport theme for a minute – I am so not the person to write about such things, though the posts have been excellent! 

Have you noticed? There’ve been a string of articles recently about the value of female friendships, and how they supply alternatives and perhaps stronger bonds than marriages and romantic partnerships (or how they themselves can offer to straight women a different form of romanticism). There was this one in NYMag about a stormy “friendship affair” between two women; this one about love that sits outside of friendliness and sex and “both inside and outside of ‘family'”; and most recently, this one in the NYT about what friendships offer women outside of love (written by the author who writes about single women dominating the political landscape in America). Maybe this is following on the wake of Elena Ferrante frenzy (there is now a TV series in the works!), or maybe it just reflects a general across-the-board questioning, broadening, and even dismantling of traditional marital structures.

Personally, I have always been deeply reliant on friendships, perhaps because I do not have an especially large or close family. Maybe I expect my friendships to supply the permanency associated with family, and so find myself struggling–like, a lot–when friendships fade, when people move away, when I realize it’s been a minute since I’ve had a quality conversation with someone.

As I’ve discovered, academia presents particular difficulties to strong friendships.  This cleverly diagrammed listicle by Tim Urban from Wait But Why offers what I think is a stimulating system for thinking through the healthiness quotient of friendships. Consider this graph:

If you’re in the first stages of a PhD program, I would especially urge you to consider this graph, because these are some of the times when you’re likely to achieve the first-tier brother- and- sister-like friendships described in the Urban article, due to what sociologists identify as the ideal environment for making lifelong friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other” (generally associated with undergrad degrees, but I’m a late bloomer). At the beginning of a grad program, you’re taking the same classes, writing the same papers, gossiping over which professors are in touch with and available to students, or who gives minimal feedback on papers and holds office hours only by appointment. Together you are excited and proud to be enrolled in the graduate program, and eager to form new friendships that bridge the personal and the professional. Perhaps you hold area reading groups, language groups, writing workshop groups, you organize meals and drink dates together, and schedule regular coffees to talk through that final paper. You’re in the process of exploring yourselves and each other. You share hotel rooms at conferences and sometimes even plan vacations together, and you practice-test each other in the months leading up to oral exams. Together you build a uniquely generative and intimate intellectual community of scholars and buds.

Years later, when you’re still waiting for those letters to appear after your name and some of the prestige of being a budding PhD has worn down, when you’re unsure how you’re going to pay the bills the following year, when you’re competing with colleagues for courses and even jobs and facing the harsh reality that writing a dissertation is perhaps the most psychologically demanding thing you’ve ever attempted in your life, things change. The paths of you and your friends are diverging, perhaps in ways you don’t even realize. Sometimes, friendships end for reasons that are somewhat mysterious. Inherent in romantic relationships is an expectation that you provide some kind of explanation when things go awry. Not so with friendships.

So, if you’re an early graduate student, I’m here to offer you a couple tidbits of advice as you form bonds with the grad students around you.

  1. Be cautious when developing close friendships with people who tend toward excessive gossip or cattiness toward other people in the department. If you spend most of your time talking shit about other people, chances are the some day you’ll be talking shit about each other. I mean c’mon, Mean Girls taught us this. 
  2. Don’t feel you need to accept all offers of friendship presented to you. Is there something about this person that attracts you to them as well? Do you find him/her inspiring in some way? Or are you just feeling pressured to enter an academic clique? 
  3. Be intentional about reaching outside your institution and forming connections with other people, either at other institutions (if you are in an area with multiple universities), or outside academia entirely. Join a basketball league! Find an online community with shared interests or a hobby you’d like to develop! Take an art class! One of my favorite circles is the feminist book club I’m a part of which is composed mostly of nonacademics. In addition to ensuring that the sum total of your identity is not tied to academia, and helping you maintain a healthy work-life balance, these connections may open up inspiration and creativity in ways you don’t expect. And, with friends outside your department, the stakes are lower. I can celebrate my friend-outside-Fordham’s Teaching Excellence award with nary a twinge of jealousy–to which, let’s face it, we all fall prey.
  4. Be thankful for the lasting, genuine, tier-one and -two friendships that you have. These are the friendships that contain minimal suspicion and jealousy; regular, reciprocated enthusiasm; excitement and positive vibes. With these friends, you’re on the same team–and that is truly beautiful. Any kind of relationship that relies upon effort and enthusiasm rather than contractual obligation to enhance some aspect of our lives should be celebrated. And in that vein, why not pick up your phone and shoot off an expression of gratitude to someone dear to you right now!
#friendshipgoals
What about you, readers? Have you struggled with friendships within your academic environments, or found them to be generally fruitful and positive? Any advice you’d like to add?

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emotional labour · grad school · professors · teaching

A Pedagogy of Detachment

“So, we’re supposed to read two things for every class?”

A number of thoughts cross through my mind when a student asks me such a question:

1. Why are they asking me this?
2. Have I put too many readings on the course syllabus?
3. Are they feeling overwhelmed and it’s my fault?
4. Am I contributing to a culture wherein students are overworked and placed under undue pressure to succeed and enter the workforce as soon as possible and never have time for themselves or for play? 

In spite of these thoughts, what I should say, when confronted with this question, is simply “Yes, there are a couple readings for every class,” and leave it to them to follow up if they have a problem with this fact. But what I did say, following from that thought progression, was something along the lines of, “uhh, yes, there are a couple, but you know, the reading schedule is open and evolving and adaptive to the needs of our course, so if I find that we’re getting overwhelmed with work or anything, I’ll dial it back–or, conversely, add texts if it seems like too little. Also, other professors assign an essay a week, so my courses are a little more reading-heavy than others, so you should be thankful you’re in my class and stop complaining.” (ok I didn’t say that last bit)

This was not a good teaching moment. It was, in fact, an instance where I faltered in my current pedagogy strategy as I enter a new semester of teaching: a pedagogy of detachment, of caring less, of embodying more authority and not feeling so beholden to the needs and preferences of each student. Rather than adhering to my carefully thought out teaching principles, I nervously rattled off all the reasons I had for assigning ‘so much reading,’ even though in reality some of those pieces are only a few pages long, and these students are adults, and the readings are important and interesting and diverse and carefully selected.

In essence, my new strategy can be embodied in one important emoji:

I deploy this metaphor of the hammer in my head whenever I need to give fewer f***s. Aided by this emoji (with the exception of the two-readings question), so far I’ve been maintaining more authority than I have in the past, stuck to my principles more, fought against the urge to externalize the running nervous commentary of feelings and questionings in my head. Past students have written on course evaluations that I am sometimes inconsistent in my assessment standards: I will say one thing in class, perhaps revise proceedings to accommodate the class’s supposed needs, but then not be quite so accommodating in my grading. This semester I am going to try to leave things in the same place where I set them down, as much as possible–hammer them into place, if you will. Paradoxically enough, I think caring (and apologizing) less will earn me more respect as a teacher, so hammering things into place is mutually beneficial.

Most people write about the importance of a pedagogy of compassion, of treating students like humans and being sympathetic and flexible when they experience life crises or fall behind on their work. I agree with all of that, of course: undergraduate students, like grad students, are under more stress than ever in this precarious socio-political climate, and we as instructors should be sensitive to the pressures they face. I am not the type of person who could ever be fully detached–even after only a couple classes, I can feel myself growing fond of the students in my classes as unique individuals, and I enjoy joking and chatting with them on a personal level. So in dialing back my propensity for caring too much, I’m just reestablishing balance, fighting against the feminine nurturing stereotype instilled within me, cutting down on draining emotional labour, and attempting to instate a reasonable level of care and compassion while retaining my own authority as an instructor.

Yet I know, and fear, that this approach may have its own host of negative repercussions, as this timely NYT article on the “madonna-whore complex” that still tends to persist in modern academia suggests. I guess with this new tactic I’m trying to achieve whatever the word for the aunt-equivalent of “avuncular” would be, an alternative to the girlfriend or mother affiliation: related, yet detached; skin in the game, but not my whole body. I wish more cultural codes existed for this type of persona for women. I wish I didn’t continue to worry that a non-nurturing front will read as overly assertive or abrasive to students, to whom I remain indebted for strong evaluations. I wish I could just enter the classroom and immediately command authority without feeling under scrutiny for my outfit or my hair. I wish things were a little bit easier for us female instructors.

collaboration · free time · grad school · phdchat · self care

Structure for Structureless Schedules

As many of you know, grad school can be frustratingly amorphous. Contra most of my cobloggers, it seems, my schedule isn’t jam-packed, and I have few daily structural commitments–though many responsibilities, some of them paralyzingly huge. While some people thrive without a pre-ordained schedule, I’m someone who needs it: I dwell more comfortably within the parameters of appointments, responsibilities, deadlines, and course slots. So as we enter into a new year and a new term, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve developed for a) carving out my own structure; b) allowing myself some flexibility and compassion within this structure; and c) caring for myself as a human being who requires community and a life outside academia.

1. Maintaining a dissertation completion schedule: years ago, my supervisor made me create a schedule for writing my entire dissertation. From its home in GoogleDocs, that document has been repeatedly revised and updated, but since the diss is the most gargantuan yet nebulous component of the entire graduate experience, it’s nice to have a skeleton framework for the whole–and a reminder that it someday will end. 

2. Keeping a daily research journal: “Daily” is a bit of an exaggeration, let’s be honest, but when I do keep up with sketching out my accomplishments, however big or small, at the end of each day, it makes me feel like I’m moving forward. I prefer a physical journal, because it allows flexibility for doodling, noting down useful references, or writing out a research phrase that I want to keep at the forefront of my mind as I work. Or, er, screaming silently at myself. 

You could also choose to keep a running list of accomplishments and breaks throughout the day, as featured in this inspiring IG by @empathywarrior:

3. Keeping an agenda: Again, I like keeping a physical one, because I enjoy any chance not to look at a screen, but here I write down appointments, deadlines, and sketch out broad weekly goals. Week-at-a-glance type stuff.  

4. Creating an online boot camp:  Over the summer, I coordinated a collaborative online “Dissertation Boot Camp,” based on the Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp my colleague Christy Pottroff blogged about here. We opted for a shared Google Doc, and the idea was to set macro-goals for the summer and the week and micro-goals for the day, posting and celebrating our accomplishments as we went along. The instructions recommended maintaining constant communication, and acting as cheerleaders for one another, developing healthy online accountability. While I found the exercise valuable overall, I’d have to say that it perhaps worked better as a Spring Break rather than an Entire Summer thing: out of nine of us, by end of August only….a few were still actively posting, and the document also became very long and unwieldy, extending to over 50 pages, making it difficult for us to keep up with one another’s progress. But I’m sure improvements in format/medium could be made, and I would certainly try this again.  

5. Creating an online hangout camp: Branching off of Boot Camp, fellow H&E-er Jana and I now use Wikispaces to keep an online goal-setter, where we update each other on a weekly or biweekly basis on intentions and progress. We have a longstanding rapport, so we can be perfectly comfortable with each other; generally, we tend to mix personal and professional, blabbing about our personal lives and venting about other challenges we’re facing even as we’re trying to crank out that chapter draft. 

Other possibilities for this point include: forming small Twitter groups who check in with each other spontaneously to see who is around and up for working for short sprints, Pomodoro-style (I was part of one such group for awhile, I think we sort of dissolved…); creating a secret or invite-only group Facebook page for people who want to track each other’s progress (ditto the last parentheses…). 

5. Finally, I highly recommend the good ol’ fashioned personal diary. Not as explicitly about goal-setting, I guess, but one of my major problems is distraction: I’m reading a book on Peter of Cornwall, but thinking about a particularly upsetting episode of Transparent, or a disagreement I had earlier with my friend. My diary helps me compartmentalize (much as I enjoy the intermixing of work/life stuff, as above), and to channel some of my daily interpersonal drama into a safe, private, nonjudgmental space. Occasionally work stuff creeps into my journal, of course, such as goals or reflections, but its primary purpose is the nonacademic, the things I can’t voice in my many other outlets of professional expression. Additionally, I think keeping a diary has helped me become a more fluid, expressive writer.

As you can tell, I’m a little goal-obsessed oriented. If I go through periods when I’m not listing, that probably corresponds with reduced mental health: I’m feeling unmoored and directionless, perhaps having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

And how about you, dear readers? Any further tips you have for setting and maintaining goals?

Aaaand now I can go record in my research journal that I finished drafting up some thoughts and ideas for my next Hook & Eye post, five days early!

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

-from Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”
blacklivesmatter · righteous feminist anger · student engagement · systemic violence · women and violence

I am scared, and angry, and here is a scared and angry rant.

I know I probably shouldn’t be, but I am scared. When I crossed the border into Canada over American Thanksgiving last week to spend a weekend on the lake with my family, I knew my chances of not dying in a sudden mass shooting motivated by systemic racism and/or sexism increased dramatically. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, so far in 2015 there have been 351 mass shootings in the U.S., already up from 2014’s total of 336, and numbering more than one a day. Many of these have been on university campuses, and gun watches and threats are becoming more ubiquitous: some of my Facebook friends have experienced gun threats on their campuses, causing campus closures or the horrible experience of holding class anyway, knowing you shouldn’t let domestic terrorism get to you but not quite sure how to unthink those thoughts. As I’m writing this on Mon. Nov. 30, the University of Chicago is shut down due to a gun threat. Grade schools now include mandatory emergency procedure training to prepare for the event of a mass shooting.

The most recent domestic terrorist attack has targeted Planned Parenthood, an essential health care service for low-income women who don’t have many options or choices when dealing with their own bodies within an otherwise corrupt, inadequate, and unjust health care system. While this attack stands as the natural extension of right-wing conservative pro-gun and pro-life rhetoric (as this brilliant Facebook post summarizes), tweets like this one still emerge, from Gov. Mike Huckabee, twisting the event around inside itself and somehow positioning the pro-lifers as the victims.

Meanwhile, since the Paris Attacks, Muslims all around the world have been forced to dissociate themselves from the extremist group some are arguing (to little effect, it seems) should be called Daesh, in order to further distance them from the peaceful Islamic majority. Yet as this satirical article observes, Christians are never called upon to account for or divorce their practices from terrorists like Robert Lewis Dear, who regardless of his personal convictions is part of a predominantly white Christian power structure which makes it possible to view women’s exercise of agency over their own bodies (sometimes after becoming victimized and raped) as an evil that should be squelched out from the world, perhaps with guns. American white men can be trusted with guns, the reasoning goes, but Muslims cannot, which is one of the reasons we should not let Syrian refugees into the country–because ammunition is too freely available here, and most Muslims are probably terrorists, unlike white Americans who are peaceful and never commit senseless acts of violence. We may as well follow the suggestion of the current frontrunner for Republican presidential candidate, recently featured as the host on America’s most popular and longstanding weekly comedy show, and create a database of all Muslims in the country, tracking their movements and banning them from access to guns. There was another time in history when a people-group was tagged and tracked.

To add to all of this domestic terrorism, violent misogyny, and downright fascism by prominent political leaders in the States, student protesters demanding equality and respect for people of all colours on university campuses after a series of overtly bigoted and racist acts–including at my home institution of Fordham University–are being shot at during peaceful protests, again by white supremicists who are most certainly the same kind of people who would vote Trump for President, who laugh when he mocks those with disabilities and shrug off accusations of racism with xenophobic comments about how bad the economic conditions are in this country. Because they are, that is true. And after the Paris attacks, in response to #blacklivesmatter actions continuing to grow around the countries, other high-profile bigots say stuff like this–
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–and receive 900 likes and over 700 RTs for an idea that completely obliterates the legitimacy of those who are always already disadvantaged before they step foot on campus, let alone enter the work force. And, back on my home turf, white-power chants are heard in Fordham dormitory housing situated in the low-income, black and Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. And female students whose cab drivers attempt to rape them are denigrated as ungrateful liars and subjected to interrogation about the state of their mental health.

I care so much about all these issues, and I want my students to care too, to be active and step outside the classroom to voice their dissatisfaction within an increasingly terrifying political climate. But I know my students won’t all be on the same page as I am (let’s not forget those white power chants), and I’ve witnessed what happens to leftist feminist professors in student evaluations, upon which the future of my academic career depends.

And last week, when I attended a protest at Washington Square Park expressing solidarity with the protestor shootings in Minneapolis and the police killing of unarmed 24-yo Jamar Clark, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of fear for my own safety. Perhaps this is an irrational response, perhaps my chances of being shot in this city of eight million people is infinitesimal, but as we were chanting and waving flags, I was keeping watch over my shoulder, I was jittery.

Photo by author from Nov. 25 Wash Sq Park protest

Terrorism in the United States is working, and while I in no way mean to belittle analogous problems faced by Canada, still sometimes I find myself gazing longingly north…

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advice · chaos · collaboration · community · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · PhD

Surviving the Job Market

I’ve been a bad blogger recently. I’ve missed a Tuesday or two, and I’m generally the blogger posting to our Facebook page but I’ve been inconsistent with that, too. Thankfully for my inadequacies, my cobloggers are patient and forgiving, and H&E has been blessed with a rich assortment of guest posts lately, from dealing with the death of one’s mother as a professor to formulating a “critical theory of breast cancer” to communing with the spirits of one’s literary mothers. I’m grateful for the women who volunteer to share their stories in the public space of the internet, still and always a risky and scary venture. From my outpost in the land of guns and Trumps and confederate flags, I continue to value this warm, badass, brilliant academic community based in the land that has been so formative for my identity (the Canadian jokes amongst friends persist, even after over five years of American residency). We’ve been talking a lot lately about making visible the many tacit modes of emotional labour that underpin our responsibilities as professionals, and in some ways this entire blog is an exercise in emotional labour, a means of bringing to the surface the injustices, the frustrations, the inspirations, the fraught sartorial choices that constitute and define our lives as academics.

This year, I’m on the job market for the first time (not deluding myself into thinking it will be the last). In some ways I am coping better than expected, and in other ways I’m coping worse–I find myself avoiding campus and shunning society a little bit more than I’m comfortable admitting, because it’s sometimes hard to face questions from academic peers regarding how the whole process is going. I am paranoid about almost everything I put on the Internet dot com (as my friend calls it): will my academia.edu or Chronicle Vitae profiles prove liabilities if I don’t ensure they’re constantly updated and consistent across all my other application materials? If I tweet something silly or overly personal, will that happen at the same moment a job committee is checking out my “professional” Twitter account? Will this post jeopardize me in some way, somehow?

In spite of these fears, I thought I’d open up a conversation about how I’m surviving this harrowing season, and I would love other seeds of advice in the comments. How are you surviving the job market, dear readers? Let’s fight against the tendency to be competitive and silent and paranoid about the process, and help each other through the process, to the limited extent that we can.

Here’s how I’ve been surviving: 

1. Seeking advice from those who have gone through the process. Perhaps an obvious point, but your department should have resources for this. My department’s Job Market Handbook has been an indispensable resource that breaks down each of the steps and materials involved in the application process. If your department doesn’t have something like this, as well as a professor charged with going through your materials, shoot someone an email asking why not! In the meantime, this roundup of advice from JM survivors which was posted on the medieval blog In the Middle a couple years ago is still immensely relevant and useful. Most of you probably know about the resources and columns provided by The Professor is In, and Vitae (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education but specifically geared toward emerging academics), publishes a number of useful advice columns every week, such as this with general advice, this on whether one should mention babies in app letters, and this on navigating the #alt-ac path. There’s a lot out there, and I don’t pay attention to all of it, and I don’t agree with all of it, and some of it I actively shun. Just as important as seeking advice from those who have weathered the process, of course, is knowing when not to expose oneself to the resources available, because they can prove overwhelming, inconsistent, and/or disheartening.

2. Fighting against the temptation not to talk about it. Something as consequential as going on the academic job market after 7+ years of graduate education is difficult, in many ways, to talk about. It’s difficult because it’s so personal, because the journey is fraught with disappointments, because conversations with other academics in similar situations can sometimes feel inherently competitive, as though you’re both constantly comparing each other’s suitability. This is not always the case, and while it’s important to identify people whose attitudes make you feel small or under constant scrutiny, it is also important to trust that most of us genuinely want others to succeed, too. I treasure the commiserative conversations I have with my comrades who are also facing the deep dark chasm of the market, and have found that opening up and chatting about frustrations along the way, even when we’re applying for the same jobs (“did you see that one guy’s faculty profile?? What was up with that poorly worded application?”) can prove therapeutic.

3. Fighting against the temptation to talk about it all the time. Yeahhhh, you also don’t want to be that person. That person who is so subsumed in the process that he/she can’t talk/tweet/status about anything else, and is constantly steamrolling conversations with the minutia of application problems (which are legion). There are going to be frustrations and sometimes the best strategy is to just laugh at them silently, or slap a good ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ onto the situation. Because the process is ridiculous, and often dehumanizing, and most of this is out of your control.

4. Learning to compartmentalize: I work out demanding but mostly realistic plans for each day, and I’ve discovered that committing myself to those goals means that I do not always have to respond to an email or message the second it arrives on my phone or in my inbox. This is a problem that we didn’t face as seriously 10 or 15 years ago: now that we can, with the touch of a few buttons on our smartphones, effectively insert ourselves into the cognitive space of anyone we want at any given moment, we as a society seem to have acquired new purchase over other people’s availability. And as women, we have the tendency to accommodate, to set aside our immediate problems and offer assistance to those who reach out to us. This is true on a personal level, but also a professional level: as Myra Green describes in a Chronicle article, female professors are approached more often than male professors for “confidential” conversations that largely deal with personal and emotional problems. Against my accommodating, social, and nurturing nature, I’ve been practicing prioritizing my own work and problems sometimes by saying “I’m dealing with a few issues at the moment, can I get back to you later?” (and then being sure to follow up later, of course). Schedule time to be with others, and cultivate relationships, but don’t feel you need to be available to other people all the time.

5. Learning not to compartmentalize my time (ok, now I might just be aiming for rhetorical effect with these list titles).  I have a handful of friends upon whom I rely quite heavily for emotional support, sometimes on a rather continual, running basis throughout the day through group iMessage threads. I like to think of these covert channels of communication as what Aimee has called “whisper networks,” characterized by sometimes gossipy, almost carnivalesque repartee combined with honestspeak regarding the difficulties we face on a quotidian basis. Having these outlets reminds me, further to #3 above, not to become wholly consumed in my own problems (even as they also offer me a safe space to express them). I recognize that this point pertains mostly to my own experience and might not be available to everyone, and this may just be a fancy academic way to characterize Having Friends and Being Able to Talk to Them. But I do think digital technology has allowed us to generate multiple, expanded networks of communication and commiseration, and perhaps if you’re feeling alone in your plight for whatever reason, you can touch base with a few friendly faces on Twitter who might be going through similar things. Twitter is great for this! 

6. Practicing the art of self-dating. Or, er, thinking about doing this more intentionally, to be more accurate. So far going on self-dates, for me, has been as simple as going for a solo walk along the river on a crisp autumn day, or “staying in tonight” and watching Difficult People on Hulu (sorry, Canada). I have aspirations to take a real self-date soon: going to a movie or the theatre by myself, or going vintage shopping. Dating oneself, rather than relying on others to fill out your schedule and your overall sense of self, can be a powerful notion.

7. Observing the whole process with compassion. I keep telling myself, “I am doing what I can in this present moment and in my present state as a scholar,” and sometimes that means, for instance, accidentally submitting the wrong version of a dissertation abstract that includes language duplicated across my application letter. As my veritable saint of a job placement professor, Vlasta Vranjes, expressed to me in a recent email, “it’s impossible not to fall into the trap of thinking that any little mistake will cost one a job–or, conversely, that one will get a job if one does everything perfectly.” On this point I will return to Amanda Walling’s comments in the In the Middle advice-post I linked to earlier: “It is not a meritocracy, or a referendum on your work as a scholar, and ‘fit’ is not code for that. It’s a bunch of flawed people making compromises with each other and with their administrators, and sometimes where you fit into that is just blind luck.”

I hope it helps to hear some of these things said out loud, and I welcome further comments, commiserative anecdotes, or advice.

righteous feminist anger

Rex Murphy again, and Against a Disembodied Academy

In case you weren’t aware, Erin’s open letter to Rex Murphy from last week was a major online hit. Currently on H&E has 5472 hits, and it was cross-posted to rabble.ca, generating lively (and sometimes awful) commentary. In fact, the post gained so much mileage so quickly that it received on the same day a misogynist, vitriolic backlash piece published in the Halifax-based tabloid magazine Frank, entitled “Wunker of the Week.” In that piece, Andrew Douglas slings mud at our beloved H&E cofounder, corroborates Murphy by questioning Emma Sulkowicz’s rape, and ridicules women’s studies generally:

Not only is Dalhousie enrolling record numbers into its various femme-babble gender studies programs this year–much to MSVU’s chagrin, I’m sure–I see that a Dal prof has taken it upon herself to loudly condemn National Post columnist/CBC troll doll Rex Murphy for (gasp) making fun of that silly girl at Columbia University who’s been dragging a mattress around behind her all year. 

So patronizing, so dismissive, so sarcastic, really hardly even worth a close-read. A bit of research on this publication unsurprisingly revealed that Douglas has traveled in or somewhere near rape apologist circles for awhile, dating back to the suicide of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons in 2013, when he claimed that there “wasn’t enough evidence” to charge the boys accused of her gang-rape, and proceeded to level blame at Parsons’ mother. In 2011, Frank Magazine was involved in another seemingly anti-feminist scandal when Douglas fired one of his employees for “questioning a column on sexism.” With 14 000 followers on Twitter, this guy is certainly not a nobody.

In this post, I’d like to stand behind Erin and the urgent, brave work that she does for this blog, which itself is an outlet for women to express our outrage with the system that makes it possible for national news figures to publicly mock the “vacant head[s]” of educated women who dare to speak out in ineluctable ways about misogyny, victimization, and their own experience with rape. Additionally, however, I want to unearth the implicit violence that Douglas and Murphy themselves enact on female bodies insofar as they both strive for an erasure of affective, embodied approaches to education and to literature. It is notable that the two main pop culture figures Murphy cites in his mockery of modern educational practices are Madonna and Beyoncé, with her “hermeneutic hip tossing grinds.” In this latter instance, Murphy not only targets a female pop culture icon, but a woman of color, drawing attention to her hips and her gyrating body in a way that subtly reinforces misogynoir stereotypes. This in addition to his transphobic opening rant against categories like “cis” and “hetero” or pronouns like “ze” and “xe.” 

Andrew Douglas, in turn, derides Erin’s reference to “Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women” (which, yes, is a Thing, a horrifying and urgent Thing), and ridicules one of her class assignments in which she incorporates the study of affect into digital mapping technology–the very kind of “Thinking Through the Body” practice about which she has recently blogged. Murphy claims that the goal of the discipline of the humanities is “to teach what is worth knowing; to train the intellect; to acquaint students with, and help them appreciate, the glories of the human mind and its finest achievements.” In proposing that the university system must draw us away from popular culture to that which he deems “the glories of the human mind,” in objecting to Sulkowicz’s use of her body as a locus for protest and change, Rex Murphy implicitly calls for the erasure of disruptive female bodies from university campuses. This form of sexism, epitomized in Murphy’s and Douglas’s articles, does not simply involve slut-shaming or antiquated approaches to literature, but additionally involves an internalized discomfort with women’s bodies as topics and subjects of engagement in humanities classrooms.

My vision of the academy involves Jane Austen, John Milton, and Madonna, and accepts that honest educational encounters with contemporary culture and with the past will uncover unpleasant truths, truths that lie far below the “glories of the human mind and its finest achievements” (which are implicitly, in this context, gendered male). My vision of the academy incorporates womens’ bodies into the conversation and exposes the ways they are systematically attacked, erased, murdered, and raped. My vision of the academy embraces embodied practices and approaches to literature, and resists the neoliberal urge to reduce what we do as scholars to impersonal numbers and metrics. Basically, my vision of the academy wants nothing to do with the twisted vision offered by these offensive online attacks against women in major Canadian media outlets.

NB: A version of this blog post appeared a week ago, under the title “Solidarity with Dr. Wunker,” but I removed it soon after posting because it wasn’t quite fully developed. Thanks are due to Andrew Ferris (Department of English, Princeton) for reading that earlier draft with a generous eye, and helping me clarify and expand some of my ideas regarding the proper role of the academy.

advice · from the archives · grad school · ideas for change · new year new plan · slow academy

Going Rogue

Hallo from London, Canada! So happy to be back with you for my third year of writing for H&E. In September, we think about new beginnings, setting new academic and personal goals. Melissa has already shared about the benefits and challenges of transitioning into the new AY on the #altac path (no shame hangover!), and Erin has given a big high five to the blog and offered some thoughts about slow academe. Since I happen currently to be in England for a bit ‘o manuscripts research, I want to share a little bit about my history with the archives, and my love of libraries, and hopefully use some of my story to inspire you, dear readers, to take a few more risks in your own research paths.

I first registered as a British Library Reader when I was 23, a young Masters’ student sent over to the UK by myself for three months of research. It was a strange trip: I spent much of it sequestered in my tiny flat in Leeds, a city where I knew no one, though I met once with an advisor, a major scholar in a different field, who seemed visibly concerned about my ability to function in this new country. I  rifled through boxes of loose seventeenth-century papers at the Brotherton Library, knowing I was supposed to be looking for something, but never quite grasping what it was. I didn’t know how to differentiate between which materials were important and relevant for the large research project I was part of, and which were just *cool* because they were old and rare. So I would amass long catalogues of books and papers, complete with photographs and descriptions and scribal analyses and research questions, which I would then send back to my advisors back in Calgary, letting them be the ones to identify whether something was interesting, or supposed to be finding and reporting back on.

 My time in London was different: I needed a personal topic for my Masters thesis, separate from the larger collaborative research project which sent me over in the first place. Somehow I was both more unmoored and more focused in this quest–I would search manuscripts catalogues for medieval devotional manuscripts that seemed remotely interesting and understudied, and then call them up willy-nilly, energized by the now-faded mystique surrounding handling materials hundreds of years old (the rustic smell, the withered parchment, the stains and fingerprints and signs of love). My excitable bouncing around between manuscripts proved lucrative, and I found a small illustrated volume that had only been touched upon by scholars in a couple articles and books which then formed the basis of my MA thesis and my first published essay.

This trip taught me the value of taking risks in my research–of taking time to make mistakes and search around through unfamiliar and unknown material, and of doing so independently, without express guidance from one’s advisors or higher-ups. My MA advisors trusted me, and gave me much more intellectual license than I’ve found to be the norm for MA supervision, especially in the States. Maybe they trusted me too much, but I think it worked out.

Occasionally throughout my career, I have been told that I have a roguish attitude toward the established program, and need to stick to normal procedures and rely upon official consultation before planning any major trips. This is true in general, of course–we can’t just do whatever we want within an academic institution. But I’m back here now, in the British Library, having planned yet another (albeit short) trip before telling my advisors (they’re okay with it this time), and I’m more hopeful at this late stage in my dissertation. I work better in the BL, feel safer and more academically secure here, than anywhere else in the world. Even when the research itself proves frustrating and hard, I love the transactional exchange of materials, old books for seat number and Reader’s card. I love (if occasionally resent) the fastidiousness of detail here, how the primary materials are treated with such respect and proprietorship. I love how conversations overheard in the local Peyton & Byrne cafes are consistently interesting, engaging, smart. And I love the familiar faces–librarians whom I recognize from over the years, who never seem to change hairstyles or fleece vests, as well as strange patrons of the library who seem by all appearances simply to live here. I love that sometimes, when you peer over a noted academic’s shoulder, you see that while they have a stack of valuable materials sitting next to them, in reality they are covertly poking around on Facebook or Twitter like the rest of us.

I guess what I’m trying to say with this post is: figure out the work environments that make you happy, that motivate you to think your best thoughts and do your best work, and do whatever is in your power to make those environments happen (not everyone has the resources to take overseas research trips on a regular basis, I understand). And while this is not a post promoting pure individualism–ie. a neoliberal bootstraps narrative about setting out on your own and taking hold of your own future–I would encourage you to take some risks this year, to do things for yourselves that (perhaps?) your superiors might disapprove of, because they don’t know you as well as you do. Try to absent yourself from the usual, and you might be surprised at what happens.

In fact, why not grab a pen right now and jot down two out-of-the-ordinary things you plan to do in the next week?

coping · empowerment · grad school · mental health · PhD · righteous feminist anger · systemic violence

Mental Health and the PhD (Part II)

I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.

But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.

It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.

And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)

A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?

I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.