In addition to running Academic Editing Canada, I'm an Independent Scholar of disability studies and science fiction (specializing in cyberpunk and feminist SF). I'm the proud co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of Accessing the Future, a disability-themed SF anthology; editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure; and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. My PhD thesis is awesome: Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF [pdf].
In the past month, I’ve taken to thinking of myself an “independent academic,” a designation that somehow is both laughable and admirable. Regardless of my many complaints and concerns about the academy, I still love the process of researching and writing. The highlights of my graduate education were those times of investigation and analysis. I miss seminar discussions of theory and literature. I even feel nostalgic for the long days spent searching through journals in the library. It took me the last half year to realize that I still wanted to be an academic. Not an academic in the sense of a university professor, but as someone who still pursues knowledge and shares it with like-minded people. I might not want to be a university faculty member anymore, but I still want to keep doing the same kind of work.
Being a science fiction (SF) scholar, I have a unique base of knowledge to start me off. The SF community is well-established and I am hoping that there is room in there for me. Part of the motivation for this blog – aside from a cathartic unburdening of my grad school trauma – is that I want to make connections with people who love SF as much as I do. My dream job would be to do editing work in the morning and write/talk/create SF in the afternoon. I believe that I have something worthwhile to contribute to the field of SF studies and I don’t see why I should stop my research just because I’m not employed by an institution of higher education.
My doctoral research was in the areas of feminist post-cyberpunk SF (a genre term of my own making!), post-humanism, technology, and the body. You can read my dissertation, Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminsist Post-Cyberpunk Science Fiction, online if you like. My current area of research interest (when I find the time) is the representation of disabled bodies and disability in SF. I’m particularly keen on notions of the prosthetic at the moment. I hope to document and discuss my on-going research through this site, so please feel free to join me in conversation.
After I read the final draft of my first post, I realized: This is how I feel and I have been unable to speak it. I have felt so powerless this past year that it is now a revelation that I am free to write and say whatever I want. Thank you internet.
Any conversations that I had about the problems with graduate education while I was PhD student always felt like a nefarious affair. Most exchanges were in private with one or two sympathetic individuals. My more public attempts to raise discussion about the state of the job market were never well received. I felt a definite chill after I sent Thomas H. Benton’s article, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go” (Chronicle, Jan. 30/09) to the departmental grad list. I received only three responses:
(1) A good friend replied to my email admiring the size of “my balls,”
(2) My (extremely supportive) supervisor made a Cassandra joke,
(3) And an MA student, whom I didn’t know, confided to me at a party that the article changed his mind about pursuing a PhD and he was heading into law instead.
It has taken me months to reach the point where I am able to write anything down and, in some ways, I am still fearful of some unknown repercussion. I am aware of the tension I am causing between the professional and the personal, the public and the private. I am writing posts of emotional and critical reflection on my business site! Who would want to employ me now that I have admitted my dissatisfaction with aspects of my training?
My experiences in obtaining my doctorate have shaped both my professional qualifications and my sensitivity to working with others in the same occupation. I deeply understand the pressures for perfection in communication and the necessity to meet deadlines. One of the main reasons I pursued my PhD in the first place is because I love teaching and working with students. While I can satisfy my desire for research work on my own, I cannot engage with teaching if there are no students. This is why I decided on trying my hand at freelance (academic) editing – I get to use the skills and passion I have to help others in their own education.
So while I will be criticizing academia for its shortcomings and exclusions, I also hope that is clear to anyone reading that such criticism does not constitute a lack of professionalism or capability. I strongly believe that it is important for those of us who recognize wrong doing – and have the resources and time to address it – to speak out publicly. Standing outside of university, we can work towards creating productive solutions (like influencing governmental policy, pressuring universities to reevaluate graduate enrollment numbers, etc.) because it is difficult to safely and effectively rally for change while inside.
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.