Anger and Accomplishment

Thursday, 20 November 2014 17:46

It’s been far too long since I last updated the blog with a personal post (so long, in fact, that I’m not even going to look up the date of the last one I wrote). The motivation to write today has come from PhDisabled posting my piece, “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School.” Although I wrote it years ago, seeing it on the PhDisabled blog, and knowing that people are reading it, has dredged up a lot of the sadness and anger from that time. Not that those feelings were buried too far down; I’ve been wallowing in self-doubt and social anxiety for the past several weeks, unable to engage with anything beyond my immediate client work. Seeing my post published, despite the feelings it stirred up, was exactly the push I needed to start writing again. I’d like to thank @zaranosaur, of PhDisabled, for being unequivocally supportive and for understanding that rage can move us to great action. While I may often feel stuck in a never-ending cycle of exhaustion, I am able to move through/beyond it. Sometimes it is anger that pushes me, but, more frequently now, it is the support and encouraging words of like-minded people that impel me to speak.

Lots of really cool and amazing things happened, and are happening, this year. As the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I researched the feminist SF archives at the University of Oregon for two weeks this spring! My head is still spinning from that experience--I have so much work ahead of me with that project, which is both overwhelming in scope and inspiring in content. I’ve made steady progress with my independent scholarship: a successful paper on disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes at ICFA; a published article on disability studies and SF in the SFRA’s SF 101: Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction; and, acceptance of a chapter on disability in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (in a forthcoming edited collection on anomalous embodiment in YA SF). And there is, of course, the project taking up most of my extra attention these past few months, my collaboration with Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire in co-editing a disability-themed, intersectional anthology of SF short stories, Accessing the Future.

My intent in listing my accomplishments is two-fold: one, to share with the people who are interested in my work (because, apparently, they are such people out there!); and two, as a reminder to myself that I am doing okay. It is easy to forget that I’m not merely lying about the house, feeling unwell, bothering the cat, and wishing for things to happen. Though at a slower pace than I’d prefer, I am making progress in realizing my ambitious goals. I need to tell myself this. I need to see the evidence of my intent in front of me, on the screen. I need this effort and hope to be shared in order to feel real to me. Because it is so damn easy to succumb to anxiety and depression and self-doubt, and then forget about everything I have done and, perhaps more importantly, everything that I can do.

I’ve a whole folder of half-finished blog posts and essays. I think it’s time that I revisit them and finish the ones that still feel relevant and pressing. Even if, after finishing my PhD 4 years ago, it may seem inappropriate or “too long,” I’m still upset about my experiences in graduate school. How can I not be? I spent 5 years pursuing my PhD, and most of that time sucked. I refuse to put on rose coloured glasses and write a revisionist history of my grad school years. A forced nostalgia would be easier, and would make many of the conversations I have with academics more pleasant, but that would only contribute to the silence that persists around the poor engagement with chronic illness and disability in higher education. The fact that a site like PhDisabled exists speaks to the necessity of anger and of fostering a community of acknowledgment and support.

There are so many issues and experiences that I still need to write about. Three years ago, in “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School,” I wrote: “as I move farther into my independent research, the scars I have from my time spent in grad school demand exploration and healing.” I’m still very much involved in this process. Despite everything I have accomplished in the years since then, I continue to hurt. Dealing with chronic illness is an every day challenge, which is certainly one kind of hurt, but I’m also talking about the hurt that comes with losing community, with necessary transitions and self-transformations. My independent scholarship is deeply rooted in my experience of illness, of being angry and having no outlet for it while I was in graduate school.

But I made it through and I’m no longer hemmed in by academic expectations of job performance. I plan on using every moment of that hard earned freedom (because having a PhD does afford me certain socio-economic privileges) to do what I love doing. I love freelance editing and coaching graduate students. I love science fiction and disability studies. I love thinking through the connections between all of these passions and figuring out ways to make all of this effort and excitement tangible. Because if I make my own life better, then I’ll have more tools to help other people. This is what my anger does now: it builds.

4 comments

  • Comment Link Kathryn Wednesday, 03 June 2015 13:32 posted by Kathryn

    Violet--I can certainly appreciate how you are feeling (re: academic research having no real impact) because I left the PhD program feeling exactly the same way. I felt that I had wasted time and resources. Completely.

    BUT after some time away, and especially after having worked with dozens of grad students on their theses (from all disciplines), I do believe that academic research does matter. Maybe not every project of course, but there is a lot of amazing work being done, particularly at the graduate level--I think it's how we go about applying our research that makes the impact.

    For me, I really love my PhD thesis now. It led to me science fiction and disability studies, and I think that my research does matter. It's starting conversations, it's filling in gaps of our understanding how the world works. I don't think that all humanities research has the same kind of reach, but I do find value in it much more now than I did when I was still working in the university system.

    I think that it's good that you are questioning the impact of your research and looking for ways to make your work matter (to you and to others). That's how I started to find my own way out of the dark hole I was in, and how I came to realize that it wasn't my research that was the problem, it was the institution.

    Thank you so much for commenting here and sharing your story. I really appreciate this conversation.

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  • Comment Link Violet Tuesday, 02 June 2015 04:27 posted by Violet

    Thanks, Kathryn. We are just so often fed that line about being failures, or less than, if we do not become academics. I find the whole system frustrating because we basically do very little with our research. It is not like we are out changing the world or having much of an impact outside of the already super privileged academic communities to which we belong. I'm far more interested in doing work with NGOs or similar kinds of work simply because I have the chance to inform the decisions of policy makers, or implement programmes that impact actual people's lives outside of just 'empty talk' which tends to go on in academic spaces.

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  • Comment Link Kathryn Tuesday, 26 May 2015 12:11 posted by Kathryn

    Violet--thanks for sharing your experience. I'm happy that you found a better place to study and work (and sorry to hear that you haven't had the support you needed).

    It wasn't clear in this post (though I've taken it up in some others I've written), but I actually am quite happy not being an academic. Even if I hadn't had all of the health issues, I still would have chosen to leave academia. The reality of the academic job is not the one I had in mind when I first started grad school. I was actually lucky to have had a wonderfully supportive thesis committee but it wasn't enough to make up for the systemic problems of the university.

    I love my current "freelance" career as copyeditor, coach, and independent scholar--I get to do all of the academic type work that I enjoy but without all of the stuff I hate. Even if I was miraculously offered an tenure track job, I wouldn't take it. Academia is just not the right fit for me.

    I wish you all the best in your studies and future career path (whatever that may be).

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  • Comment Link Violet Friday, 22 May 2015 01:15 posted by Violet

    I can empathise with what you wrote here. I am about to leave the Phd programme in the department from which you graduated. My own experience there was so horrible that I chose to accept an offer from a university in another country just so I could get away and focus on my work. You are right about the fact that no matter what we do we will never be valued by people like that (I read your earlier post, too). I have published in peer-reviewed journals in my field (good journals, too!), spent a term as a graduate exchange student with the English faculty at Oxford, act as a peer-reviewer for a good journal in my field, review other articles sent to me by other journals that seek out my expertise, and was granted a research fellowship with an NGO with special consultative status with the UN but none of that is good enough for those people. I am nothing but a crazy worthless person to them. Maybe your experiences would have been better elsewhere. The problem is systemic, for sure, but there are places that are less hostile. My new university is one of them. I worked very hard to find them and it is the best fit for my work (on mental and physical illness and war trauma in WWII era English women's letters). Keep up the good work, but don't let your experiences at a place in Canada make you lose faith in academia altogether.

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