As is common at the turn of a new year, I have found myself reflecting on all of the changes that have happened in my life since I completed my PhD in 2010. Last year, in particular, was an amazing year for me professionally: in addition to presenting at three conferences (ICFA, SFRA/Eaton, McMaster), I published my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, and won the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellowship. As well, my editing and coaching business grew and stabilized into sustainable employment, and I ended out 2013 with the first two months of 2014 already booked with client work.
When I was still in grad school, there was no way that I could have imagined a year like 2013. I was sick, poor, and justifiably angry. I'm a lot healthier and more financially stable these days, but honestly, I'm still angry. I don't dwell on my disappointment with my graduate school experience anymore, but it occasionally informs my decisions to take on certain projects and it certainly comes out whenever I talk with graduate students and faculty. I don't feel like it is necessary for me to lie about my struggles with academia. After all, I left the university for many reasons. When I attend conferences, I identify as an "independent scholar" and many people are curious as to what that label means, what motivated me to leave, and how I go about my work life now.
I thought I would start the new year by revisiting some of the first posts I shared here on Bleeding Chrome. These are the entries that hurt to write and were terrifying to share. Even reading them now makes me tremor. I wish it wasn't true, but I suffered through graduate school. I made many choices to stay within a system of work that I knew didn't accommodate my sick body or respect me as an individual.
We can never go back and change the things that injure us physically or emotionally. But we can acknowledge that we suffered and that we are still here, giving voice to our experiences so that others may help us bear the weight. Maybe we don't always immediately emerge stronger or wiser, but I do believe that with enough time we can come to a point of understanding with our past struggles. Here are some of mine:
Post/Academic Shame (my first ever blog post):
After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic? ... [Read the whole post]
In all visible and general day-to-day aspects, I am able-bodied. Such a demarcation between able and disabled was not always there for me. At the height of my health problems, I felt distinctly apart from everyone I knew. I was ill enough at one point in my doctoral education that I missed a year. Not literally “missed a year” of course – I am not a time traveler – but certainly I lost out on a year’s worth of socialization and professional development. While the inability to participate in academe was difficult enough to deal with, the blow that came to my ego was worse. You see, nobody seemed to notice my absence. ... [Read the whole post]
Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb. ... [Read the whole post]
What does it mean to be “well-read?” This is a question that I have spent a good deal time thinking about the past several months. For most of my life, “well-read” has meant someone who had read the entire English literary canon and can throw off opinions on writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Faulkner. I vividly remember preparing myself for my undergraduate education by going to the public library to read “the Classics.” What I didn’t anticipate at the time, however, was how boring I would find them. Now I appreciate the value in reading “foundational Western literature,” but few canonical tomes have ever really excited me or made me think, “Wow, I want to read more of that!” Accompanying my lack of interest in these must-read texts was a sense of guilt and worry – I should enjoy Dickens, but I just don’t. Do I not understand the appeal? Everybody else in my first year English class seemed to love carrying around their Norton Anthology of Literature, but I simply performed the work I was tasked with little joy.
Since I had a lack of interest in the canon, I pursued courses in other genres of literature throughout my undergrad when I could: environmental writing, regional-Western Canadian poetry, Russian literature of the 20th century (Bulgakov, not Tolstoy). The result of my careful picking and choosing around the core-required courses is that I had read a little bit of everything from everywhere. If there were gaps in my knowledge of the canon, surely this would not be held against me when I entered into my Master’s degree.
During grad school, unfortunately, any confidence I had gained from undergrad was quickly stamped out. I almost consistently felt – and was made to feel by many of my peers – like I was embarrassingly “under-read.” I can’t even count the number of time where a (usually male) colleague said to me, “Oh! You haven’t read that?” Regardless of how they framed their derision, their meaning was clear: I was not as well-read as them and therefore somehow less intelligent/undeserving of graduate education/an idiot. I now know that much of this kind of combative conversation and literary peacockery is tied into gendered and classed ways of discourse, and academia encourages the assessment of one’s intelligence based on who/what they have read.
Of course, being well-read is important when you are an academic. Clearly, if you are researching and writing about a particular topic, it is best that you know as much about it as possible. But the distinction between what you need to read and what you should read is complicated and always changing. What you “should read” is often politically driven, based on which academic celebrity is in vogue this year, which splinter discipline is grabbing all the funding, etc. In my experience, peers who came from well-to-do homes were much “better read” than myself. By belittling my literary experience, these people were also reminding me, perhaps unintentionally, that I was outside of the norm. I was not, for all intensive purposes, “well-read” (which is too close to “well-bred” for my comfort).
One of the ways in which people (in academia, or really anyplace where there are pretentious jerks) maintain the illusion of their being “well-read” is to dismiss the knowledge of others. When I said, “I’m working with feminist SF writers,” snobbish colleagues would retort, “Have you read [insert whatever SF writer that they have read]?” Even if the conversation got to the point where I told them about the writers that I was working with, writers unfamiliar to them, these privileged peers would still insist in eliding my interests with theirs, which, by default, were better, smarter, more important and worthy of study. It sucked to be continually intellectually marginalized, but I kept on reading what I enjoyed despite my sense of genre-induced isolation.
When I first started involving myself with SF fandom, I brought all of my grad school insecurities with me. At the first con I attended (WorldCon in Montreal), I was overwhelmed at how well-read the other fans were that I was meeting. I only knew the little corner of feminist SF that I had studied for my dissertation. There was just so much SF out there that I hadn’t even heard of, never mind read. But, unlike my grad school peers, most of the fans I talked with weren’t condescending when I said, “I haven’t read that yet.” It really hit home to me that I was in a different world of reading when I explained my interest in feminist SF … and people not only asked me who my favourites were, but they wanted my recommendations! Up until that con, no one I talked to about my work asked me what they should read. Reciprocal interest AND respect? I hardly knew how to respond!
Instead of a verbal game of one-up-manship or a pure info-dump, the majority of people I talk to at cons are interested in sharing resources with me. I’m not saying that there aren’t still politics and power issues at play at cons when it comes to “the books that you should read” (because there most certainly are problems), but that there is a greater general openness to a variety of engagements with genre which is simply not as present within academe.
My experience with fandom, then, is a mixed bag when it comes to people using the phrase “well-read.” Since SF has so many subgenres, and many that bleed into the larger genres of fantasy and horror, very few people can claim to be well-read in all of it. Going to SF cons has helped me appreciate what it means to be truly well-read. If I’m sitting next to someone in their late-50’s who has been reading SF since they were a teenager, there is no way that my five years of directed scholarly SF readership will match their experience. And chances are good that they haven’t read the disgusting amounts of academic theory that I have, which help me frame my SF readings in, I hope, unique and productive ways.
I feel increasingly more comfortable in telling people, “I have not read that! I’ll put it on my list.” I have turned my lack of knowledge into opportunities to connect and learn from other fans. It’s impossible to read everything and I’ve finally stopped trying – and caring – to do so. By being amongst a diverse group of fannish people, I better understand the inherent unfairness of the phrase “well-read.” The amount and kind of books that I have read are dependent on the time, money, education, and health that are available to me at any given moment. These are factors with which we all must contend, but few acknowledge in their evaluation of what it means to be “well-read.”
I am happy with my little corner of books, but I still I want to read more and I want read widely. I am, however, constrained by finances, time, and ability. I would rather sit down with a person who has read a few novels well, than with somebody who has read a lot of books just for the sake of having read them. I’m sure that I will continue to encounter people who have read everything and think that they are better for it. But I don’t give them my time or attention anymore. I’m interested in learning about people’s passions – why did a certain book grab them, what do they recommend? To me, to be “well-read,” then, has come to mean “to love-what-you’re-reading.” More sharing, less judgement. Let's throw out the literary yard sticks!
Now help me decide on what book I should read next …
I actually wrote the following post weeks ago, but I wasn’t ready to post it. First, I felt too exposed in this piece, and second, I know that is not, well, classy to discuss money with strangers. Well, to the hell with that – after reading Lee Skallerup Bessette’s and Amanda Krauss’ recent posts on class in the academy, I can’t think of a good reason not to post now. I’m not the only one!
I did not fully appreciate class differences until I went to university. I grew up in that Canadian grey area between working class and lower-middle class. There was always enough food and clothes (even if there were no brand names and often hand-me-downs), but money was a constant issue of stress and conflict. I overheard innumerable arguments about money and learned to adopt the attitude that “hard work doesn’t mean wealth” (which would come in hand in grad school). Throughout high school, I was aware of the fact that any post-secondary aspirations I had were my own responsibility to fulfill: I would have to pay for my books, transportation, and tuition. So I lived at home, made the 1.5 hour commute to campus, worked during my summers, took out student loans, and studied hard to win bursaries and scholarships. This is not an uncommon experience.
Still, it was during undergrad when I realized the socio-economic disparity between myself and many of my peers. The friends I made all came from families who were solidly middle-class or higher: their parents covered tuition, allowances, and living expenses. Visiting their homes was culture shock – everything was new, top-of-line, and (to me) indulgent. I remember looking into a friend’s freezer and discovering that they had three kinds of popsicles – and they were the “good kind” with swirls and real fruit (not the off-brand “freezies” that we had at my house). It is funny how such a seemingly small thing – a brand of popsicle – can speak volumes to class expectations.
I made it through undergrad with $20,000 in student loan debt and the idea that one day, hopefully, I would have a freezer full of the finest in frozen desserts. I imagined a future where I didn’t live month-to-month on a wage, where I could travel and buy the little extras that seemed to make life for my friends that much better than it was for me. Higher education was my route up and out of the working class. Or at least I had thought.
Entering graduate school was a whole other playing field in the game of class norms. I’ve never been very successful hiding my class background, mostly due to the fact that I don’t feel a need to, but I will admit to feeling insecure about my cultural knowledge amidst my new peers. I grew up listening to Top 10 lists on the radio and came from a house that never had cable TV or the internet. I read old Beetle Baily and Hagar the Horrible comic books growing up and didn’t see a symphony or opera until I was well into my university education. I felt distinctly unclassy next to my classmates whose parents were professors, lawyers, and engineers. I also felt really, really poor. And that feeling only increased as each year passed and my already well-to-do peers landed grant after grant while my applications were consistently rejected.
I think part of the reason I failed at grant writing is because I never truly got the hang of the necessary academic language. I’ve spent most of my adult life relearning the pronunciations and correct usages of the “big words.” I know all the important ones now, but I still don’t use them often. I strongly believe that communication should be as clear as possible – and much of academic language is too esoteric and convoluted for someone uninitiated in the discipline to easily follow. Professors always commented that my writing was “clear.” From some that was a sincere compliment, but from others it came across as a backhanded one. Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb.
A good deal of my anger is directed at the high-earning faculty members who continue to encourage naïve young people, who may not have much financial stability or family support, to enter graduate education without informing them of the financial burden of such an undertaking. It is irresponsible and an example of the worst kind class ignorance rife in academe (not everyone can afford grad school or has access to professional networks that will ensure them of a job when they are done). I have little respect for faculty and graduate students who espouse leftist politics of equality and ability, and yet are unwilling to re-evaluate their own privileged class positions or sacrifice any of their income and time to help those less fortunate in their community.
Of course, not everyone in academia is the middle-class ideal or an upper-class snob – but it certainly is an easier place for those who can claim those statuses. For those of us who weren’t lucky to be born into wealth (and it is luck, not a right), we have to choose whether or not we should try and pass (knowing that eventually, our lower class backgrounds will be exposed). I guess I could have tried harder to get the language down just right and I could have avoided bringing up the shameful discrepancies in graduate funding so often. But I am proud of the way I conducted myself as a graduate student. If I had been anything less than myself, I fear that I may have been trapped in academia forever. I would have accepted the low pay, stressful workload, and uncertain job prospects and remained unhappy in a system of economic exploitation.
I never really expected to get rich from higher education, but I did expect better than what I received. I guess I expected an academic job when I first started my MA – after all, that was what I was told would happen. When I saw the possibility of academic employment as the mirage it has become for so many PhDs, I was suddenly grateful for my class background. I think it helped me see the academic system for what it is – I was able to develop a Plan B and not feel entirely crushed that I am not going to have a tenured job. Aside from one extended family member who holds a teaching degree, I am the first person in my family to reach this level of education. I am proud of that distinction, because it has not been easy to achieve.
University has not been the road to riches for me, but it has given me the opportunity to live my life on my own terms. With a PhD under my belt, I feel that I can go toe-to-toe with anyone (even if I still stumble on a word here and there). If I can survive grad school (while being poor and sick), I can survive any career challenges that lie ahead for me. I do not feel embarrassed by my less-than-middle-class background; I’m happy with where it has taken me. And besides, I still appreciate a really good popsicle.