Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (or BADD for short), and this is my first year participating. For those of you new to my blog and my work, when I’m not running Academic Editing Canada, I’m busy with my independent scholarship in disability studies and science fiction. I recently wrote a post about my disability identification, “Fragments: Disability, Community, and Me,” if you’re curious, and many of the posts on this blog deal with my reflections on being a chronically-ill graduate student, and how that experience informs my research today. I also edit science fiction (SF), and I want to mention some good news right away— because I’m super proud of it—that Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction stories that I co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly!
There are many things that I could write about when it comes to my experiences of ableism, but I thought I’d share some of my observations as an independent scholar invested in bringing disability studies into science fiction studies. At the moment, I am frustrated with the genre academic community's engagement with disability—it is still such a marginalized conversation outside the handful of us who work at this intersection (mostly grad students and recent PhDs).
There are many oversights and microagressions I have witnessed or encountered in my role as scholar and writing about them in any specific detail feels unsafe and “unprofessional.” I know that this is ableism at work. I can say that I have felt devalued in my interactions with a few journal editors. I have made requests for accommodation on presentation times that were entirely ignored. And I’ve had to withdraw an accepted paper at a conference because its scheduling was so mishandled. These are just a few incidences that have affected my ability to fully participate, and I have heard many, many more examples of ableism from my disabled academic friends and peers. It is extremely common to hear, for example, in all kinds of academic and casual conversations, professors using ableist language, like “lame” and “crazy,” to describe unpopular or unusual ideas and people. This language hurts.
Articles addressing disability in any meaningful way are infrequent finds in genre journals—and, if they do appear, most of them are locked behind paywalls where I (and everyone else who lacks access to university journal databases) cannot read them. While I appreciate the difficulty of scheduling large, multi-track conferences, it is frustrating that the few papers about disability are often placed on panels about “otherness” or monstrosity (this has happened twice to me). It seems that genre conferences do not know where to effectively place a disability studies paper and this is a problem. It makes talking about disability in a sustained, critical way (that intersects with feminist, queer, anti-racist, and such other important concerns) that much more difficult.
While Disability Studies is becoming less marginalized in science fiction studies, there is a long way to go for it to move from a momentarily interesting “hot topic” to an actually active and engaged conversation that does not rely on a small handful of people to constantly bring it up. Since I started presenting on disability in SF at conferences (though I am not able to attend more than one or two a year I do follow what’s going on online), I have learned just how new and marginal disability studies is in the academic genre community. For example, the Science Fiction Research Association’s annual conference theme this year is “The SF We Don't (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.” Although many axes of identification were included in the original call for papers (CFP), there was no mention of disability! It took the wonderful Ria Cheyne to point out its absence before “disability and ability” were added to the CFP. Furthermore, there are no papers, from what I can tell from their conference program, that directly address disability. This is an all too common scenario that I have seen played out too many times.
Additionally, in a practical sense, there needs to be more people talking about disability and calling out ableism because so little is actually happening to improve the working conditions for a countless number of disabled graduate students, adjunct/sessional and tenured faculty, and administrative staff. Just check out some of the stories on PhDisabled (which is an amazing resource for disability recognition and advocacy). Conference organizers need to work harder in ensuring that their venues are fully accessible and in developing clear policies around accommodations for people with disabilities. Journals need to be open access and available on a variety of platforms.
I can’t speak to how other academics are trained in graduate school, but I know that for me, the process of interrogating cultural truths was held up as a foundational goal. I also know that when I see an absence of knowledge, especially one that causes or reinforces existing harm, I feel an obligation to speak up and say, “this is something we need to be talking about.” This is how I feel about the representation of disability in science fiction. There are very few popular SF texts that show realistic depictions of disability, whether it be physical or cognitive disability, chronic illness, or neurodiversity. It is a niche topic in terms of academic study but literature and film (and all media) show us what is and what is not possible. SF is an important place where cultural producers and consumers think through what kinds of lives matter and who gets to take part in creating the future world. I believe that genre scholars have a responsibility to meaningfully and significantly engage with disability—both theoretically and practically—sooner than later.
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.
Last year when I went to ICFA, my only hope was that people would be nice to me. It was my first time trying on the “Independent Scholar” label and I worried that no one would pay much attention to anything that I had to say. Happily, however, this was a groundless concern and I ended up having an extremely positive experience (which spawned this post). This year, I went to ICFA with a different set of hopes and fears (but mostly excitement).
Since last March, I have made some good headway in my independent scholarship, most notably my soon-to-be published (in August) edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. In addition to that book, I also have several peer-reviewed articles/chapters in process, as well as a few non-academic bits of writing floating about (my favourite being the Afterword I wrote for Outlaw Bodies). I viewed this year’s ICFA as the start of my official debut as an Independent Scholar (capital letters and all). I knew that I would be meeting and talking with a great deal of lovely people, but I still had some anxiety about the reception of my latest work. My previous papers had arisen out my doctoral research, all thoroughly vetted and evaluated by my thesis committee. My research and writing about disability in science fiction, though, has happened in the comfortable bubble of my home office. While I have had a passing conversation or two about disability studies in the past year--and obviously have been engaging with it in depth for my collection-- I hadn’t yet tested my new knowledge base on the spot, in front of a room of my colleagues. So I worried. What if I interpreted the theory wrong? What if everything I have read is embarrassingly out dated? What if nobody cares?
As usual, I was stressing about nothing. It turns out that I do know what I am talking about. Of course I still have so much more to read and learn, but I am definitely on the right track. One of the highlights of the conference for me was talking for hours with another disability studies and genre scholar, Derek Newman-Stilles (visit his wonderful blog, Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy). Next year, we want to organize a panel discussion on reading disability in genre literature. We both agree: The timing is right, the interest is there, and disability is an identity position that deserves greater engagement within genre studies. With such conversations in mind, I have left ICFA feeling a great sense of forward momentum in my scholarship. I have finally found my niche and connecting with so many supportive people warmed the long burnt out cockles of my academic heart.
I also left ICFA with a renewed sense of advocacy for graduate students and underemployed adjuncting PhDs. There is still a lot of work to do around raising awareness and developing plans for action around the job market (both academic and non-academic). I talked with at least 10 grad students who had no exit plan at the end of their degrees. Most were clearly struggling to fully comprehend the financial reality about to befall them once they left their programs. I also talked with many sad and angry adjuncts--far too few actually enjoyed their current job position or felt any optimism about their future as academics. Now that I am operating on the outside, the stratification of labour within the academy is even more obvious…and more appalling. I can no longer imagine being within that system and needing to fight a daily battle for fair and equitable employment. In the upcoming years, I would like to see some sort of panel discussion that addresses alternative work strategies for genre scholars. The science fiction and fantasy fan communities are robust and might offer previously unconsidered opportunities for MAs and PhDs wanting to engage with genre in a meaningful (and perhaps paying) way. This year I had several grad students and TT faculty directly ask me about my independent scholarship, so the interest in non-traditional academic career paths is definitely there.
Next week I am off to the Eaton/SFRA conference and I am feeling, overall, a lot more confident about my scholarship going into it. I still have some of the same groundless worries bouncing around at the back of my brain, but I am getting so much better at ignoring them. When I was in grad school I could not have imagined this life that I have carved out for myself. While I have no clear goals for the future outcome of my independent scholarship, I am starting to make long(ish) term plans (e.g. write a book). Whenever my anxieties creep up now, I remind myself: an uncertain future is also a flexible one. And thank Cthulhu for science fiction.
I am writing again after a back-injury kept me away from my desk for over 2 weeks. During my recovery period, I had a lot of time to do some reflection on the past few years. As part of that process, my thoughts naturally turned to my time in graduate school and to the decisions that I made about leaving. I have no regrets, except I do wish that I had been able to evoke more change to the PhD process while I was there. Even now, over a year out, I still find myself composing talking points about ways to change the PhD system to make it easier for graduates to transition into non-academic jobs when they done with their degrees (because, once again, an academic job is a fading reality for the vast majority of PhDs these days).
Usually, I address both graduate students and faculty, but this time, I want to engage solely with the faculty members who supervise and teach graduate students. For the system to change, both students and faculty need to work together. Here are 5 simple ways that graduate faculty can help their MA and PhD students transition into the larger world of non-academic work:
1. Set up a LinkedIn profile. Networking is one of the most valuable tools for anyone looking for a new career. LinkedIn is free, easy to use and manage. After spending a decade or more in higher education earning their degrees, many PhDs do not have an extensive list of networking contacts. If faculty join – and connect with as many academic and non-academic professionals that they know – they can then provide valuable potential contacts for informational interviews, job offers, and career support.
2. Follow-up with the new MA/PhD grad at 6 months from degree completion. Reconnecting with a past graduate student only requires a quick email. Not only will the grad be reminded of the support that faculty might provide them (i.e. networking, letters of recommendation), it will provide faculty with a clearer picture of where their grads are ending up post-degree.
3. Announce graduate non-academic successes. I’ve said this before, but changing the discourse of what constitutes career success for PhDs is essential. In departmental meetings, faculty need to take the time to share with their colleagues the new jobs/career developments of their past students. If all the talk remains focused on only the academic placements of grads, then a closed environment will remain (which is damaging to graduate students, most who face a substantial period of unemployment at the end of their degrees).
4. Talk to current graduate students about their future plans. While this bit of advice might seem like a no-brainer, I have met many new PhDs who were completely unprepared to leave academia. Their supervisors never had a sustained conversation with them about what to expect upon completion of their degree. Many grad students are anxious about what awaits them after their defense, so faculty need to take the lead in starting the conversation of “what’s next.” Just by being open to talking about non-academic jobs will help ease some of the grad student’s anxiety – and if their supervisor is on a networking site like LinkedIn, they can at least start the process of networking for themselves.
5. Be familiar with the Career Services offered by the university. Obviously, faculty cannot be career counsellors themselves, but they should know exactly where to send their graduate students to find the advice and career support that they might need. If faculty are uncomfortable or feel unequipped to discuss non-academic careers with their students, then knowing the name of the career counsellor who specializes in working with MA and PhD students is the next responsible option. Faculty should openly encourage their students to make use of whatever career resources (seminars, networking events, etc.) the university has to offer.
I appreciate that graduate faculty are often overworked and overly stressed themselves, but I do believe that, just as they have a responsibility to support their graduate students in developing academic skills, they must also be conscientious of the dismal state of the current academic job market and help their MAs/PhDs transition into a non-academic job as required. Each of the 5 pieces of advice I offer above require little investment in terms of time and energy – and the potential rewards to students are substantial. If you have tenure and work with graduate students, you are in a privileged position – it is your professional responsibility to aide the next generation of MA/PhDs in finding their own paths to success.
A few weeks after my defense, I sat down with members of my department for an “exit interview” where I proposed a brief list of suggestions and changes to the grad program. I composed the list carefully, making what I thought were relatively politically safe and low-cost recommendations. While a few of these points may be specific to the institution I attended, I believe that many grad programs would benefit from this advice.
Financial Aid (especially important for students without external funding):
- Offer a one time $500 grant to students in the finishing stages of the PhD to cover thesis paper, printing, and binding fees.
- Extend guaranteed funding to 5th+ year students and/or offer sessional teaching positions and/or guaranteed TA/RAships (that cover living expenses).
- Offer a one time $200 grant to cover “professionalization” costs, such as buying appropriate clothes for job interviews.
(Non-academic) Job Training:
- Appoint a Non-Academic Job Market faculty member and/or graduate student committee. Much like the Professionalization Committee, the Non-Academic Job Committee can hold talks, presentations, etc. on preparing students for the non-academic job market.
- In addition to bringing in a representative from the Campus Career Centre, enlist employment professionals who specialize in helping academics transition to non-academic jobs.
- Set up non-academic professional training sessions (i.e. a seminar in project management) for graduate students and/or explicitly encourage attendance to university-sponsored sessions held throughout the school year.
- Bring in PhDs who are working in non-academic jobs to come in and speak about their career paths to graduate students.
- Clearly state on the Department’s website the current rates of PhDs finding academic jobs – or at least link to external resources regarding employment opportunities.
- Start talking openly about the current state of the academic job market in classes. Not to scare, but to encourage students to develop a ‘Plan B’ career path.
- Openly support students who choose to leave academia at the completion of their degrees. Announce their successes during departmental meetings (much like how academic placements are currently announced).
- Have supervisors stay in (minimal) contact with their PhD students for 6 months to a year after degree completion in order to better understand the job market and individual career paths.
- Openly and repeatedly encourage graduate students to access campus-wide services (such as Career Services).
My exit interview went well and the faculty I spoke with were honestly interested in improving graduate experience. Apparently, (some of) my suggestions were addressed at a departmental meeting – the outcome? A PhD working in a non-academic job – who was finally not a spouse of a current faculty member – spoke to the grad students. A small start I guess, but in talking with PhD students still working towards completion, the same fears and silences around academic employment are intact. [Update: Since this article was written, my former department has established a permanent Non-Academic Job Resource Officer and website, and there is increased awareness and discussion of the career challenges facing graduate students.]
I personally feel that the largest changes need to happen within the culture of academe. Tenured faculty need to start talking to their students (undergrad and grad) about the state of the university. I appreciate the pressures on faculty to remain silent, but I firmly believe that is it unethical to encourage students to pursue an expensive and difficult graduate education without also giving them the facts about the grim prospects of academic employment.
Graduate students: Get out of the “silo” of your department. Look at the services your university offers. Bring in outside voices. Be sensitive to the disparity in graduate funding. Make connections with graduate students in other disciplines. Work towards academic employment, but design a “Plan B” for yourself too. Arrange for your own "exit interview" with your department or faculty - you might be done with your studies, but you can help those still struggling through.