balance · gradschool · mental health · PhD · reflection

Repost: The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

It’s hard to believe I’ve been writing for Hook & Eye for well over two and a half years now, having joined the team in January of 2014. Sometimes I go back through my old posts and, shockingly enough, find inspiration from them. I say to myself: you’re pretty wise, past me! Tonight, after having enjoyed a semi-proper weekend doing weekend things (the extravagance!), including taking a long hike in the woods up the Hudson river with my partner, and now sitting at home facing a large stack of neglected papers and experiencing the dawning realization that a job app is due tomorrow…pulling out an old rant about the cult of perpetual productivity seems apropos.

Taken today, Oct. 23 2016, from the George Washington Bridge connecting NYC and NJ.

(originally posted March 11, 2014:)

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a follow-up to Jana’s repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to “take the time for self-care.” The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive “culture of acceptance” that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I’m concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I’m now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I’m finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive. Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to “this chocolate bar with help me work, right?” Or reminders that breaks are important because they’ll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do–even the breaks we take–have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can’t we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for its own sake? How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

 Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)–at the Armory Show 2014 

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marveled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

——
I guess I still don’t have answers to these questions, but think them important to raise. Readers, do you find yourselves struggling to enjoy allotted time off? Do you have advisors who indeed encourage and enable this kind of thinking? Please, share your stories. 

adjuncts · blacklivesmatter · gradschool · phdchat · solidarity · structural solutions · unions

On the Recent NLRB Ruling in Favour of Grad Student Unions

Definitions matter. It’s a lesson I teach my Composition students every year: define your terms. Redefine old terms. Assert your intimate understanding of the topic and sculpt out the contours of your study at the outset. Writing a paper on gentrification? Identify and describe what that term means right away, so you can prove you’re in control and the reader can trust you as guide her through the paper.

In Canada, graduate students employed by the university have been allowed to unionize since a 1975 decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the case of a graduate association at York University. Most major Canadian universities contain at least one student union, though it is important to note these unions are not the same as legally recognized collective bargaining units (*thanks for this important correction by the anonymous commenter below). These are not all affiliated with a larger national union, but as often funded and subsidized by the government, they retain autonomous power over their working conditions and ability to speak and act as a collective. The Canadian Federation of Students exists in order to represent the graduate employee needs of publicly funded universities. I’m not always on-board with the idealization of Canada that happens down here in the States, but this is one issue where I’m like – omg, yes.

In the US, public universities function under state law, and most of the major ones were unionized by the end of the twentieth century. Prior to 2000, and between 2004 and 2016, graduate students at American private universities were defined primarily as students rather than employees, blocking their ability to unionize on the basis that any labour conducted for the university serves as mere apprenticeship, training students for our future jobs. But, in this precarious academic climate, students are no longer satisfied with treating graduate school as a holding period for a future that may never come. In 2015, the super awesome graduate workers at New York University (many of whom I’m proud to count as friends) set the precedent for altering the NLRB’s ruling, and Columbia’s appeal for official recognition for private universities has just, in late August, been approved, reversing the Brown University ruling from 2004, and dispensing of an Amicus Brief submitted by a number of leading Ivy League universities voicing their opposition to the proposed ruling (using the dubious reasoning that collective bargaining would detract from the educational experience).

The Board Decision, found here, states in no uncertain terms that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act,” countering the Brown University Board claim that graduate assistants are “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” This is a victory of definitions–of better defining who is and isn’t an employee, who is and isn’t an employer, and what it means to be both a student studying to enhance the mind and a labourer working to enhance the university. It is both/and, not either/or. Already, in response to this decision, universities like Columbia have crafted subtly anti-union websites to try to dissuade students from acting on this decision (not linking, for obvious reasons). The campaign against graduate student workers has moved from a national to a local level.

Many grad students, especially those in the first years of the program, are beset by an innate sense of gratitude and obsequiousness toward their superiors; I remember this. Just the other day an anxious facebook status popped up in my Timehop wherein I bewailed the accidental sending of an email about graduate student business to a number of faculty members as well. I remember being afraid to speak up about conditions that seemed latently unfair, because hey – I’m tough, we’re all in this together, that person seems worse off than I am, I can handle being asked to work a few extra hours a week beyond my contract, right? Wouldn’t want to stir the pot and risk creating enemies.

But unions can give collective voice to these individual grievances, rendering instances of injustice both less personal and more urgent. And faculty should be on our side too–happier working conditions for us means happier working conditions for faculty.

Some believe that we should be grateful for the luxury of engaging in ideas of the mind, that this work is inherently fulfilling, and besides: we are not coal miners, whose working conditions are objectively worse than ours. According to such positions, by barely making above minimum wage, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of the suffering monk, bent over his poorly lit desk and scratching away at parchment until the wee hours of the morning. There is a beauty and a nobility in that. But as a medievalist, I know that even these monks sometimes scribbled exasperated comments in the margins; they probably deserved and desired better working conditions, too! And as for the coal miner: true, we don’t experience the physical and mental duress and possible health risks of working long hours in a dingy mine. But we do face rampant mental health issues that we can’t even talk about for fear of demonstrating unfitness for the very conditions that have made us this way, and some of us confuse self care with actual care, neglecting to look after our basic needs. The presence of extreme suffering in the world does not negate the hardship we might also face, but on a relatively smaller scale.

A quick read through any of the extant graduate union contracts shows that graduate student unions empower the graduate community, giving them some control and autonomy over the precarious working conditions that enable institutional exploitation of cheap labour. But they also do more than this. Grad student unions can help us reach outside the bounds of the academy and partner with existing social movements in order to advocate for broader social change, examples of which are the grad union votes around the BDS movement, or actions against police unions inspired by #blacklivesmatter. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, praised the NLRB decision on Twitter, but elsewhere condemned BDS. The conversation is becoming more heated and more urgent, and as the new school year rolls into full swing, and election day draws (looms?) ever closer, I’m eager to see how the conversations will shift.

Definitions matter. I speak the voice of “we” and of “us” here, but technically I’m not part of the student body anymore – definitionally speaking. Like now Doctor Melissa (yay!!!!), it has been 25 consecutive years since I’ve entered the Fall semester not as a student, having successfully defended my dissertation in late August. But I still care about students’ rights, and I care about social movements that can mutually thrive and grow together, like the fight for graduate employee representation at private universities, the fight for more fair and equitable treatment of adjunct workers and other contingent faculty, and even the fight for just treatment of permanent faculty, who at Long Island University in Brooklyn have recently been locked out alongside their sessional brethren (ousted from their positions the day before the semester, deprived access to their university emails and health insurance, and replaced by temporary workers of dubious origin). Graduate employee, adjunct professor, and tenure-track professor alike, we’re all in this together.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Other works cited: 
Zinni, Deborah M., Parbudyal Singh, and Anne F. MacLennan. “An Exploratory Study of Graduate Student Unions in Canada.” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations 60.1 (2005): 145-176. JSTOR.  

faster feminism · gradschool · guest post · running

Guest Post: Being What You Are

September is my favorite time of year, which is a sure sign that I’ve spent almost my whole life going back to school as the season changes. I love the fresh, chilly air, the eagerness in my new students, and the return to routine after the casual chaos of summertime. Like New Year’s Day, the first weeks of classes come with resolutions, good intentions, and enthusiastic motivation, but I know that these will soon wither as the stresses of teaching and writing bear down on me. This year, though, I’m really hoping to make at least one of those resolutions stick.
As a PhD student, I really love the work that I’m privileged to do, but I have to admit that I don’t always feel like the real deal. I know everyone struggles with feeling like an imposter sometimes, but the courage and confidence to think of myself as an academic are so often in short supply, especially after the starry-eyed hopes of September have faded. Unfortunately, motivating oneself to read, or write, or be otherwise academically productive is particularly difficult when it all feels pointless, because that too-busy-for-its-own-good brain is so sure that nothing it ever achieves will be good enough. This year, though, I’m determined to change my perspective.
I received some very simple advice a couple of years ago, when I decided to take up running. I was very reluctant to call myself “a runner,” and I had it in my head that, in order to define myself as a runner, I had to be an Olympian. I needed to be running marathons, to have the fancy shoes and the hardcore 6-days-a-week schedule like the people on the covers of fitness magazines. But one day, when struggling to articulate my love for running without actually calling myself (gasp!) a runner, someone asked me a simple question:
“Do you run?”
I said, hesitantly, “. . . yes?”
“Then you’re a runner. That’s all there is to it.”
This was a breakthrough for me. The next time I tied up my running shoes and hit the pavement, I thought to myself “I’m a runner!” It turns out that I’m not any different from the people you see out the car window, sprinting along the sidewalk in the rain. I’m badass too, just like them! And when I ran my first half-marathon last fall, I really felt badass. I obviously didn’t finish anywhere near the top; I wasn’t the fastest one out there, but I finished, and I was so incredibly proud of my time. Now, I really do feel like a runner, but I’m convinced that starting to think of myself that way even before I had run my first race really did help me get there in the first place.
What I’m hoping for this year, then, is that I can apply that same principle elsewhere in my idea of myself. I have a feeling that tricking Keely-the-PhD-student into understanding herself as a scholar, a writer, a teacher – all the things I long to be but can’t quite convince myself that I am – will be a lot more complicated than lacing up a pair of running shoes. I realize that changing the way I see myself is going to take some work, some serious, intense, painful growth. But I think – or at least I hope – that changing the way I think about myself will help me do that.
Because it turns out that, even in the midst of all my self-doubt, I was “a runner” all along! It also turns out that I’m already doing the things that make me a writer, an academic, and a teacher. Of course, if I’m going to meet the goals I’ve set for myself, academic or otherwise, I’ll still need to work my butt off, to push myself, to be disciplined. But thanks to my newfound confidence as “a runner,” I know now that if I’m ever going to become who I want to be, it will take a shift in the vision I have of myself – and I’m determined to sustain this vision right on through the 2015-2016 school year . . . or at least until Christmas.

Keely Cronin
University of Waterloo

administration · emotional labour · gradschool · guest post · ideas for change · politics · solidarity · strike

Striking across Borders

Striking is in the air, dear feminists. As I write this, my partner David Klassen sits with his fellow NYU AWDU bargaining committee members in a room with the notoriously pernicious and overpaid NYU Board of Trustees, negotiating for a fair contract for graduate student workers. If they don’t come to an agreement tonight (update: THEY DID!), strike action is planned for the rest of the week, joining our picketing friends across the border at York at the University of Toronto. The meeting stands as the culmination of over a year of other meetings and negotiations and protests and demonstrations since they resumed their status as the only private school in America with a graduate student union, and I have watched from afar as my partner has volunteered his time and physical and mental energy to fighting for this cause–doing so, ironically enough, without pay, dedicating time to collective action that he could be spending on his dissertation. Notably, four out of the five members of the reform caucus (AWDU: Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) are female. I have no doubt that they are similarly dedicated and fantastic, and probably similarly exhausted. 


One of the most compelling recent developments is the swelling of support from undergraduates, over 500 of whom have signed a petition which, amongst other things, avers that “[g]raduate student working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions,” because “[g]raduate students teach our sections, grade our papers and exams, answer our emails late at night, and support our academic growth.” Uh, sob! Rarely do we see such bonds formed between undergraduate and graduate students. An impressive number of undergraduate and graduate allies gathered earlier for a sit-in outside the meeting, demonstrating support and solidarity, and forming a gauntlet as the admin officials entered.

Since it seems as though there’s a growing climate of change and protest against precarious working conditions in academia which is spreading across many former divisions and borders these days–including #NAWD two weeks ago–I wanted to set the actions in Canada and the States in conversation with each other a little more intentionally. I’m not qualified to discuss the U of T/York strikes; however, I got in touch with my friend Norman Mack, a doctoral student in the English Department at U of T, and he was generous enough to type out some answers to my questions. The following is lightly amended from our online exchange: 

Photo: Norman Mack


Q. How (if at all) has the strike brought the student body together?

NM: Solidarity and camaraderie have never been stronger than with this strike. From the strike vote last November on (which saw a record turnout and record yes votes in favour of the strike), there has been a widespread concern over the state of the funding package, and its depreciation over the years since it was last negotiated in 2009 (the year of the last increase in the minimum funding package from $13,500 to the present value of $15,000).

On the picket lines (in this I can only speak from my own experience), there has been as much support from the undergraduate community as here have been uninterestedness and hostilities. I get the sense, however, that support from undergraduates is increasing judging by social media and the students who are everywhere reported to be approaching us expressing sympathies. This increasing support is likely in large part due to the Administration’s tactics thus far: their misrepresentation of facts and the insistence that, despite a work stoppage that’s disrupting classes for thousands of students, the university can function normally.

Furthermore, because of the high number of CUPE3902 members showing up for picket duty and marches, the most varied bonds and conversations are occurring across the many faculties at the university and across the three campuses, particularly on social media, which otherwise might never manifest. There is undoubtedly a community forming, all determined to attain significant gains through the strike.

Q. How do you balance striking action alongside all your other demanding work as a graduate student? 

NM: Again, I can speak only for myself and perhaps those in my particular situation in my department (English): the problem of balance has not been easy. Unlike York University, which has also been on strike since [last] Tuesday, the University of Toronto has decided to continue with classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For graduate students like myself, who are taking a full course load, the combination of picketing for upwards of 20 hours a week (along with other strike-related activities) and keeping up with course work has been incredibly taxing. This is not to say that others, who are either preparing for candidacy exams or writing/researching for their dissertations, have it easier. Many have expressed how exhausting this last week has been, particularly as the weather has not been kind, reaching upwards of -24 degrees with either snow or freezing rain. And yet, there remains a strong sense of commitment to the strike, particularly those in the humanities, those in other words who both stand the most precarious, the most at risk.

Q. Do you believe that collective action will benefit your graduate education (even if you don’t get the results you desire)? 

NM: As I’ve mentioned above, I believe that strong ties are forming both internal and external to those represented by CUPE3902. As I write this, more and more open letters of support are emerging from both faculty and students. (For a particularly strong version of this, see an open letter by Dr. Paul Downes, Dept. of English) If the new buzzword of the university today is interdisciplinarity and collaboration, there has been no better example of these practices than those in the strike I have witnessed thusfar.

Of course, the goal is ultimately to raise the standard of living for the most precarious of our ranks: those who are living on $15,000 a year in a city where the cost of living has skyrocketed since our last increase; those who are finding themselves past the funded cohort trying to finish their dissertations while making ends meet with low-paying TAships or Instructorships, and in some cases part-time or full-time work outside the academy, while also paying some of the highest tuition in Canada ($8,500/year in my department). Many of us are in this fight with much on the line. It was not an easy choice, but it was a necessary one. And we intend to win.

Photo: Norman Mack

———
HUGE thanks to Norman for answering these questions so thoughtfully, expertly, and thoroughly. We at H&E extend you and your comrades our warmest wishes of solidarity and support as you continue the fight. May NYU’s victory give you hope!

This post has been edited to correct an error in the original: I had said that 7/8 bargaining committee members are women, but in fact there are two other men.