Entries in academia (3)


About that question "Do you want to teach?" you keep asking me

A photo from a guest lecture I gave at Julliard this yearMost of us are trained to answer yes to the question if we're going to bother to apply for doctoral programs, even knowing many of us 1) don't want to teach and 2) won't find jobs doing so even if we do. I'm in my fifth and final year of my doctoral program and the question still catches me off guard. It sets off so many different and repeating thoughts my mental response borders on a fugue state. Yes. Sometimes? Depends. Invariably I end up saying some version of "Yes, but..."

I didn't apply to any academic teaching jobs this year. There are a number of reasons for this decision but to put it most bluntly: I didn't want to do that to myself yet.

I follow enough queer feminist academics on Twitter to know that once you jump into that deep end of the academic job market -- expressing your want to actually be paid for the work you trained  for and do so well -- you don't come back unscathed. 

You get a job. You teach a 3/4 teaching load and don't have time to do your research. Or you work a 4/4. You aren't tenure track. You are tenure track but then you're denied tenure. You move to a remote place and don't have any community. You teach hundreds of students who are taking out loans for classes and look to you to be their therapist. You are a first year instructor and a guy wears a "Make America Great Again" hat in the class posturing in an incredibly agressive manner in the class and you don't know who to ask for support because, well, you're a first year instructor. Some mix of all of these. Or you apply for a job for two, three, four years and don't get a job. So you quit, either the job or the job search. And then, since you're academic, you write about it. There is now a whole genre of quit lit. Google it. An entirely new career path has also sprung up: teaching the webinars and workshops to the all the unemployed PhDs trying to figure out what to do with their degrees that are entirely unmarketable in academia. (This career path is on my list of back up jobs to be totally honest.) 

So what is a published, political, soon to be PhD queer feminist to do? 

Given what has happened in my personal life in the past month alone it turns out that not going on the job market and focusing on post-doc applications (which is definintely a job in and of itself) was a wise decision. Even prior to the death of my father and learning my cat is dying of cancer our political climate had so solidly knocked the wind out of me I knew it was smart to give myself another year to prepare for the academic job market battleground. But of course the question comes.

Part of the reason I'm reflecting on teaching in this moment is because I had the opportunity to join a pedagogy workshop at the International Studies Association Northeast conference last month. When I sent in my application to the workshop it was an exercise in curiosity and exploration. What class would I teach if I could design my own syllabus? What is my teaching philosophy? I typed them up and sent them in with my six page C.V. I was first on the waitlist for the workshop. Someone dropped out, I joined in. Eagerly I participated in two days of workshopping about the project of teaching international relations with professors and doctoral students. It made me excited, even hopeful, to be in the classroom. I was in the right place after all.

At this point in my teaching career I've worked as a teaching assistant in a few classes and given a number of guest lectures but haven't been a lead instructor yet imposter syndrome makes me to believe that this means I still don't know what it means to teach and whether or not I know I like it. But the reality is that I do indeed know how to teach and am good at it. 

Knowing all that I know about the job market, at the heart of it I thought resistance to saying yes to teaching came from the fear of facing the rejection of wanting something I might not get.  But actually, being in that pedagogy workshop reminded me that my frustration came not from the question of whether or not I want to teach but from the fact that I know I do. Because I am a teacher. 

So yes, I want to teach. 


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.



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. 



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.