A few weeks back I tweeted: “After leaving academia, I had to really think about what I wanted out of life. I have far more ambition now than I ever did before.” For whatever reasons, the sentiment resonated with a lot of people and the positive response I received prompted this post.
The entire time I spent in academia, from undergrad through to the completion of my PhD, is best characterized as deadline oriented. Write a paper. Submit. Receive grade. Apply for next course/program/degree. Rinse and repeat. Of course, there was a lot more complication to that process, but the way in which I approached every year of my higher education was essentially the same: meet pre-existing deadlines and fulfill pre-existing requirements. The end goal was the degree, obviously, but I can’t honestly say that I was driven by a specific sense of ambition. “I want to be a professor” was not so much a statement of ambition as it was an assumption of the final outcome of my academic efforts. Once I realized that a professorial life was not in my future, I was faced with a question that I had been avoiding for the entirety of adult life: What do I want to do?
As a person who most often did what was expected of me—I truly excelled at listening to authority figures—it was extremely difficult to not have my efforts directed by an outside force when I found myself no longer a graduate student and unemployed. In my mind, I was a failure. I tried to work for my spouse. That experiment failed spectacularly within a few weeks. In those first long months out of my PhD program, I can only imagine how awkward and challenging it was for my partner to have me (unconsciously) looking to him for the direction and guidance in my life that he couldn’t provide. My housekeeping and pet tending efforts were doubled. But a spotless house and an increasingly spoiled cat did nothing to give me purpose. I was depressed for quite a long while (and it certainly didn’t help that I was coping with chronic pain, which, at that time, was quite severe and debilitating). I was completely adrift without institutional structure. I had no deadlines to meet. I had no ambition.
Graduate school showed me what I didn’t want—an academic career—but it also provided me with experiences of work that were outside of any possibilities I was exposed to as a child. People can, and do, make a living from researching, writing, and exploring difficult and new ideas. There wasn’t any discussion of an intellectual career happening outside of academe, but I read enough to know that independent scholarship—respected, widely read, and transformative engagement—does exist. When I made the mental leap to thinking of myself as an independent scholar, all of the institutional rules of "what is possible and who can do what" started falling away. Freed from other people’s deadlines, I started making my own. The first goals I set were small: set up a website, read a book, write a blog post. Then they started to grow: present at a conference, start a business, edit an essay collection. Each time I devised of and completed a project of my own choosing I became more confident in myself. And I started wanting more.
I want to write a book. I want to write a screenplay. I want to edit science fiction. I want to be an invited keynote speaker. I want to be the next big theorist. I want to never limit myself to the options in front of me. I want to go beyond the obvious outcomes of my current labour and find new ways to grow as individual.
To make my new found ambition public is both terrifying and liberating. Part of me worries that people will say, “who does she think she is?” Another part whispers to me that these dreams are too big for such a small person. But there is also an ever increasing desire to try. I finally understand now that I am only a failure if I don’t take risks. I spend much of my time alone and it is easy to become lost in my own world. My newly found ambition pushes me to write, to learn, to reach out to other people. I have no idea what my future holds but I no longer feel like I am staring into some horrible directionless void. Instead, I am curious and eager to find out what I’ll be doing at this time next year. While not every project I dream up will work out, some of them will.
When asked about her best advice to writers, Octavia Butler (in Bloodchild, p. 144) said that it was to persist: "It’s a truth that applies to more than writing. It applies to anything that is important, but difficult, important, but frightening. We’re all capable of climbing so much higher than we usually permit ourselves to suppose. The word, again, is 'persist'!"
I have ambition. I will persist.
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]
With ICFA now behind me, I'm already looking forward to attending WisCon at the end of May. I will be presenting a paper as part of WisCon's academic track and I am hoping to get a conversation started about vulnerability in feminist SF. This paper actually heralds in the first stage of my next major research project. Even though I'm still putting together Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction, I'm already starting to plan out a solo, book-length exploration of vulnerability (in science/science fiction). I have been thinking critically about vulnerability - in all contexts of the word - since I first picked up Margrit Shildrick's Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (2002) during my doctoral research. Shildrick's evocation of the vulnerable self - and the measures we take to cover it up - became a guiding theoretical framework for my thesis.
But even after writing my dissertation, the complexity of vulnerability - in terms of ontology, epistemology, and corporeality - has persisted in my imagination. It bleeds into all of my academic thinking. I encounter it, suddenly and unexpectedly, in my daily life. Vulnerability refuses to be ignored. No theory, word, or concept has ever taken such deep root in my conscious before. I find it - both the word and its presence in my awareness - unsettling and inspiring. And like with most things we find troubling, I'm eager to examine and contain it. I can't say yet what the book will look like or how fast I will write it, but I know that it is coming.
Below is the abstract for the paper (still to be written) I will be presenting at WisCon. A (tiny) sneak peek into my on-going obsession with vulnerability:
Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist Science Fiction
As the pace of advancements in prosthetic and other computerized assisted-living technologies quickens, we, as a culture, find ourselves faced with new possibilities for (dis)abled bodies and embodiments. In this paper, I want to explore the concept of vulnerability in feminist SF and begin articulating the ways that vulnerability of the body can open up new ways of understanding human being (both materially and ontologically). Drawing on both disability studies and feminist theory, I want to expand on the notion of vulnerability as theorized by Margrit Shildrick in Embodying the Monster (2002). Shildrick proposes that while “we are already without boundaries, already vulnerable” (6), normative subjectivity elides its own vulnerability by repositioning it as a quality of the monstrous other (68). Much traditionally masculine oriented SF (from the books of Isaac Asimov to Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series) rejects vulnerability in favour of the technologically-fortified posthuman. Technology is positioned as a way in which to overcome the physical or mental limitations of the human body, but the quest to transcend the body ignores the lived realities of labouring, feeling, and suffering bodies.
I suggest that, regardless of the distractions and promises offered by technology, the body matters. Elizabeth Grosz reminds us that: “If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency” (Volatile Bodies, 1994, xi). It is those unquantifiable qualities – perspective, insight, reflection, desire, and agency – that uniquely define embodied vulnerable being. They are qualities that technology cannot reproduce or replace. By taking examples from feminist SF works (from writers such as Octavia Butler, Misha, Larissa Lai, and Nalo Hopkinson), I want create an open discussion about the ways that the genre stresses the importance of the body (both abled and disabled), asking us to recognize the shared vulnerability that defines human being.
As I make my way through The Prosthetic Impulse, a special collection of essays on the “prosthetic” edited by Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, I am again reminded that I am still a visitor to the field of disability studies. I know that when it finally comes time for me sit down and write about the representation of disability and disabled persons in SF, I must attend to my own position as reader, critic, and chronic pain sufferer. This is a task that I feel a great deal of apprehension around. While I suffer from a chronic pain condition that is at times disabling, I do not identify myself as a person with a disability. 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.
I lost contact with many people whom I had called friends. Some could not or did not want to engage with me. People would call or email once, then never again. My illness made the distinction between a friend and a colleague crystal clear. I particularly remember a staff member, a person I normally chatted with several times a week, off handily remark that they hadn’t seen me in a while – I had been away for nearly six months. It was completely and utterly soul crushing to realize how unimportant I was to the function of the university community with which I had whole-heartedly identified.
I fell through the space in people’s attention that the business of academia always hurries along to the next deadline. My peers had their own studies stressing them. The faculty were pressed for time to give to the present and able, never mind the absent and ill. I went from feeling that I was an essential working member of an educational and research institution, to an easily replaced cog in the machine. All the doubts and suspicions I had about my suitability for a career in the academy were made truth. It was a dark time for me that I still am trying to comprehend and accept.
It was during the time of my illness that I learned the actual value of a graduate student: 2 units (undergraduate students are worth 1 unit). That means 2 units worth of government funding. No amount of research, writing, and committee work could change my value in the scale of the system. In the very same conversation that I learned my unit worth, I was told that I had two options to deal with my illness and studies: I could take an unpaid leave of absence or I could continue to struggle through. The advice was: keep struggling. No other help was offered. As I was completely dependent on the small income I received from the university from RAing (a smidge over $1000/month), there was little real choice. I took the advice to keep working as all good “2 units” do.
The experience of being ill transformed me as an academic. I looked at the thesis project I had strategically designed for my future employment in academe and scrapped it. I started researching feminist SF and theories of the vulnerable body. I changed supervisors. I refused to renew the lost “friendships,” and instead strengthened the relationships that had seen me through my missing year and sought out new alliances. I spoke loudly about my dissatisfaction with graduate education. I refused to publish. I pursued career building opportunities outside of my department. I still participated in the academic community (if only to find avenues to voice my dissent and improve conditions), but I no longer celebrated my role in it.
Once, near the end of my studies, I was told by a prominent faculty member that I was thought highly of within the department and that they were sorry that this esteem was never shown through funding. Instead of feeling honoured by the compliment, I was angry. Where was this good will when I was sick and struggling to pay the bills? If my experience is that of someone well-liked and respected, there is something deeply wrong with the current state of graduate education.
I only made it through that missing year and the difficult ones that followed because of a small handful of people (those of whom I have thanked and will continue to thank). Completing the PhD while suffering with chronic pain and living at the poverty line was not easy. I’m still so angry about it all. Raging, in fact. My anger is directed at all the tenured faculty who risk nothing to change the system that hurts the grad students with whom they work side by side; at my peers, who landed large funding packages and thought themselves better academics for it; at the university, who keeps bringing in naïve and willing graduate students without arming them with marketable skills; and finally, I’m angry at myself for … I’m not even sure what exactly because the hurt and pain and righteous indignation run so deep.
My feelings about illness, research, and graduate school are intertwined. It is difficult for me to determine where one thread of pain begins and the other ends. Everything is knotted up with issues of class and ability. I am still trying to sort it all out. Generally, I'm a happy and optimistic person, but as I move farther into my independent research, the scars I have from my time spent in grad school demand exploration and healing. My hope is that by writing about my experiences, I might be able to connect with others who had similar journeys. I can’t be the only one…
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?
Despite excelling as a teaching and research assistant, being an active member within my department, and having highly praised writing/critical skills, I never managed to receive any external funding for my research. As anyone within academia knows, funding too often marks the perceived value of a scholar and without it, landing an academic job – and even other funding – becomes more challenging.
Being consistently poor and overworked inevitably caused me a great deal of stress. With each passing year, my work load and stress increased, while my pay decreased and my health worsened. By the end of my second year, I was suffering with chronic pain and I made the decision to leave academia once my PhD was completed. Still, there was always the lingering hope that maybe I could make it as a prof – if I was only lucky and clever enough to meet the right people and write the right things. I was not.
I felt deeply embarrassed for completing my degree. Why had I willingly endured so much hardship despite being acutely aware of the problems within graduate education and the miserable odds of succeeding in the academic job market? Knowledge was not power. It was like I was the victim of an email scam, but worse: I saw the scam for what it was and gave away my credit card information anyways.
The shame I felt was both startling and oppressive. I refused to look at the bound copy of my thesis and my PhD diploma was thrown into my lowest desk drawer (where it still sits, unframed and unlooked at). Everything about my 6+ years of combined graduate studies told me that success was only one thing: a tenure track job. To be sure, some faculty members gave lip-service to measuring success in other ways, but everything about the education and professionalization process screamed “tenure matters.” Even though I knew a university position was not for me, the parameters of what constituted success remained the same.
I know that graduate school is not an even playing field, regardless of the oft-spouted ideals of equality held by the majority of my Humanities peers. When measuring my academic production against many of my (well-funded) classmates, I fall short. While they were able to write and publish articles, I was dragging myself to doctor’s appointments. While they were out buying more books or traveling to another conference, I was struggling to pay the rent and accruing debt. There is nothing fair about graduate school … and I feel like a dupe for thinking that there might have been.
So here I am, nine months out, marginally self-employed and wondering if it was all worth it. The “no” that sits at the bottom of my gut shames me. I should have known better, I think. Or maybe I have bad luck. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Or maybe the whole graduate system is actually broken. Maybe it relies on the shame, fear, and self-loathing it produces in those of us who don’t measure up, who don’t get funding, and who don’t get the tenure-track dream job to keep it going.
In my shame, I have been silent. It is not that I lack the intelligence and creativity for academic work – I am, in fact, quite confident in my strong analytical and communication skills – but I am physically and ethically unable and unwilling to participate in an institutionalized system of education that ignores the suffering of its workers.
I think that if the graduate school survivors who have been over-looked, under-paid, marginalized, and forgotten start feeling good about succeeding despite it all, we might evoke some change. If we can recognize that the failure lies not with us, but with a system that operates on economic and psychological exploitation, we can begin to push for change outside of the academy. If we can find the courage to voice our dissent loudly and widely in the public sphere, perhaps those inside might finally hear us.