Entries in academia (2)

Monday
Jun262017

Let's talk about mental health in academia

 

This month I was interviewed for a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the "summer slump." The piece "More Than a ‘Summer Slump’: How the Loss of Structure Affects Academics" published on the 15th and highlighted my interview. The piece draws on a conversation started on Twitter by queer, feminist, academic Stephanie McKellop‏ (@McKellogs) who regularly engages in conversations about the academic environment. I replied to the tweet with thoughts from my experience as a doctoral candidate and was contacted for an interview.  

I wasn't sure how much I'd have to say but had no problem talking for almost 40 minutes about the mental health challenges that come with academia and the difficulty in knowing what is reasonable to expect for yourself in terms of self-care. This is something I've talked with many women about during my time as a doctoral student (see footnote) and is cetainly something that is magnified during the time as an unfunded doctoral candidate and during the summer months.

I'm incredibly grateful to see people participate in this frustrating and difficult conversation. As I said in my interview, the system doesn't incentivise people to speak-up about these challenges. And as is clear from the comments on The Chronicle FB page, as well as the Twitter harassment Stephanie McKellop faced, those who decide to talk about it often face a negative backlash including being told things like: "What a bunch of whiners! They have three months of completely free time to pursue their research programs, acquire new skills, study and learn anything they want. Isn't this what you go into academia *for*? It's a bit like a partner at a big mergers and acquisitions law firm complaining they don't quite know what to spend all that money on..." or "Oh shut up. It was a rare summer when I didn't write an article or most of a book." or "Made-up problem," as exemplified by the aforementioned FB page. Where to begin with the privielge and assumptions tied up in some of those comments!

As the article notes, I've been planning for this time of my career since before I started the doctoral program. I also have the financial support from my family, a loving parter and the ability to move to a more affordable city while I'm finishing my dissertation. Some folks in my cohort have children. Not everyone is white. Some people are living with disabiliites. Given that I have so many privileges working in my favor and still can recognize the gaps and challenges that students and professors face when it comes to mental health care, I'm aware it hits many marginalized folks even more severerely. This is not a made-up problem, it's an ignored or minimized problem.

After the article published I had many folks contact me on social media and over text to say that this story hit home for them, that they'd thought they were the only ones who faced this isolation and "slump". Importantly the article explains, "Many professors who spoke to The Chronicle learned to cope on their own, but are sharing ways young academics can create and attain their own social structure." Praise the digital age and social media!This article and responses to the article makes it clear why finding ways to communicate about mental health as a larger part of the experience of working in academia continues to be a risky but valuable endeavor.

 

Footnote:

My program funds the first three years for most students in the program during which we have classes as well as teaching assistant or research assitant placements. Most students finish their dissertation proposal by the beginning of their fourth year, and then begin/continue their research and writing of the dissertation until completion which hopefully is sooner rather than later but varies greatly as you can imagine! I plan to finish the program in five years, dedicating two years to the research and writing of the the dissertation. This means I'll be unfunded for two years of the program. 

 

Tuesday
Apr142015

My doctoral student confession: I miss freelance writing

This semester I finish my second year of doctoral work and true story: I miss freelance writing.

The last article I wrote was published in December which seems like a world away for a freelance writer who was pitching editors several times a week regularly and everyday at one point. I wrote pitch letters in my head as a went to sleep and got to work on them when I woke up. Today that freelance writing energy is consumed with writing academic articles, conference preperation, classwork and a dissertation proposal as a doctoral student (not to mention having a relationship with friends and family and self-care) and it has me kinda bummed. 

The opportunity to take grad classes, work as a teaching assistant and write a dissertation as a funded student is amazing. I've met some kick ass faculty who have been at the forefront of bringing coversations about gender into the classroom. I've made connections at conferences I simply didn't have access to prior to becoming part of a doctoral program. I'm very passionate about my research; I love that I'm paid to research a topic I care about so deeply and my job is to develop those ideas into the best piece of research I can to make a contribution to this world. This is definitely a gift I never thought I'd have.

But I miss freelance writing! I want to take my curiosity and turn it into an article to put out in the world in a matter of weeks. I love being able to take issues I care about, pitch amazing publications I respect and write those stories. I appreciate getting feedback from an editor and shaping a piece of writing into something that we both mold into a final publication. I like seeing that dozens (occassionaly hundreds or thousands) of people have engaged with the interviews I collect from activists and academics. I get motivation to keep doing this work from the community of people, friends and strangers, who respond to something I've written. And dammit, I like that after years of writing for free my work is finally valued (read: paid) by a number of publications I respect immensely. 

My primary job after I defend my dissertation proposal at some point this year will be to write a dissertation. There are many reasons to place my dissertation as the first priortiy, not the least of which is the fact that my funding ends after three years in the program (as in, one year after I finish classes this May). Realistically I need to put the best of my writing energy into researching and writing a dissertation.

One of the criticisms of academic writing is that no one reads it. Some people are asking if academics should be writing for popular media. From where I stand as a writer, a queer, a feminist, and an activist I can truly appreciate the education and experience in academic writing and teaching I'm recieving now and at the same time acknowledge I can't wait to be pitching popular media again. I engage on Twitter everyday and promote writing by amazing writers for popular media platforms who I've learned so much from and have enjoyed being in community with as a freelance writer.

When I began my doctoral program I always knew I wanted to continue to write for popular media, but for now that writing will have to wait.