Displaying items by tag: academia
Wednesday, 29 June 2011 18:09

A Reflection on Illness and Graduate School

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…


Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Monday, 20 June 2011 12:24

Marginalization of SF in the Academy

When I changed my PhD project to feminist SF, I knew that I was effectively saying "I'm not planning on getting hired in a tenure-track job any time in the near future." This is not to say that everyone who studies feminist SF cannot find a university position, but it is a pretty hard sell.  When we discussed the attractiveness of my project to a potential hiring committee, my supervisor did mention that it was "probably a good thing" that I was leaving the academy. From dismissive conversations with male colleagues who wondered why I wasn't reading Asimov to failed grant proposals, it was always obvious to me that I was engaged with literature of a questionable nature.

In the "Introduction" of my thesis, I addressed the issue of the marginalization of SF in the academy [excerpt follows]:

Working in the field of science fiction, I have discovered, is often an isolating and lonely task. When considering my interests in (post-)cyberpunk and feminist SF, the critical community to which I belong is notably small. When I explain to my peers that I am working with current feminist SF writers – Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson, Tricia Sullivan, and Laura Mixon – I usually lose their attention as these names are largely unfamiliar. I try to recapture their interest by mentioning the cyberpunk angle of my project, but, unfortunately, many people have never heard of William Gibson either! Many critics within the SF community have taken up the issue of the marginalization of science fiction in the academy, and Gary Westfahl, in his book, Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy, does an admirable job of identifying the field’s major hurdles. Westfahl argues that science fiction, unlike other “once-neglected” literature, still attracts the “most academic resistance” (2) and that:  "Within the field of science fiction criticism, there are debates about the canon of science fiction that run parallel to larger disputes about the canon of literature. Some prefer to focus attention on a few writers of undeniable talents, like Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, and [William] Gibson, but others have publicly protested about the over attention to these writers and have called for more study of “neglected” authors" (2). Westfahl, observing that SF is unlike other fields of academic study, notes that SF is “subject to another strong influence: the industrious science fiction community consisting of dedicated readers who embody and maintain the traditions of the genre, carry on their own painstaking research, and express their own views concerning the quality and stature of its authors” (2). From my own academic research and experience with the SF community at large, I wholeheartedly agree with Westfahl’s explanations of its marginalization. SF is fun to read and watch as a fan, but making an academic career out of it is risky at best.

In her excellent study of the cyberpunk movement and postmodernism, Virtual Geographies, Sabine Heuser adds another difficulty facing SF scholars to Westfahl’s list. Heuser argues that “science fiction takes place in a double field of tension: between high and low culture, as well as between the ‘two cultures’ of the natural sciences and the humanities” (xii). This tension creates further problems for defining science fiction: how much science is necessary for a novel to be considered science fiction and not something else? In Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery notes that “hard” SF is written for the largest audience possible and that it often iterates conservative gender values, whereas “soft” SF, written for “experienced and venturesome SF readers,” is more likely to “challenge rather than to uphold gender norms” (5). With Attebery’s tentative distinction in mind then, the feminist post-cyberpunk texts of my project fall (unfairly so in my opinion) into the further marginalized genre of “soft SF,” long deemed unworthy of sustained academic attention. Also contributing to the difficulty of working with SF are the myriad distinctions among its subgenres. As Heuser correctly observes: “One problem with science fiction criticism has been the lack of attention paid to genre science fiction, which accounts for the vast majority of works published in the field” (xvii). This lack of attention to “genre science fiction,” a category in which the texts of my study are arguably situated, is a definite loss for both the particular field of SF criticism and for literary studies in general. I firmly believe that one of the strengths of SF lies in its multitude of subgenres, which exemplify the culturally-intuitive creativity of its writers and the enthusiastic critical engagement of its readers.

Despite its continued marginalization in the academy, SF criticism manages to attract some excellent scholars who are eager to spread their enthusiasm for the field. Veteran SF critic Jenny Wolmark argues that “SF is increasingly recognized for its ability to articulate complex and multifaceted responses to contemporary uncertainties and anxieties, and metaphors drawn from SF have acquired considerable cultural resonance” (“Time and Identity” 156). Austin Booth and Mary Flanagan, editors of the comprehensive collection Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture, simply state: “Science fiction is a vital source of narratives through which we understand and represent our relationships to technology” (2). In my opinion, no other literary genre comes close to articulating the anxieties and preoccupations of the present day as clearly and critically as SF, as it is a vital source for understanding newly emerging embodiments and subjectivities.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Wednesday, 15 June 2011 13:17

In Praise of Dr. Janice Hladki

It occurred to me while writing my initial posts that I must be careful not to ignore the positive aspects of my graduate education. To just cite problems or characterize my experience as solitary and without mentorship would be not only misleading, but a disservice to those individuals who shaped the academic that I am today. If I am to throw stones at the walls of the tower, there are certain windows that I don’t want to hit.

One of the greatest sources of support and inspiration for me during my doctoral studies was Dr. Janice Hladki. She is, quite simply, an astounding human. I use the word “human” intentionally, because Janice demonstrates the some of the best qualities of humanity: empathy and advocacy. With her seemingly endless capacity to empathize with others and her dedication to achieving equality for all, Janice is remarkable.

I first met Janice in the first year of my PhD when I took a seminar she was teaching. From the first day, I knew that I liked her. In her introductory remarks to the course, she told us that she was just not a prof, but a person too. She carefully explained how she understood that we are bodies, and those bodies need care and consideration – an aspect of being human that academia too often ignores. If we needed extra breaks, no problem. If we had to stand up and walk around because of back pain or stomach issues, go for it!

I am still smiling about how awesome it was to hear a professor talk about the body. Not just about “the body” in theory, but about the real, tired, sore, and inconveniently acting bodies that were us, always and right now. Janice refused to elide the real body in our discussions of the theoretical body. It was intellectually – and, at times, emotionally –challenging work. The texts we studied were a departure from the other more detached and “safe” literary theories I was learning. Janice introduced me to disability studies and helped me to understand deeper aspects of feminist theory.

I ended up being Janice’s RA, off and on, for the next 4 years. She was witness to my never ending health problems. If I needed extra time for a project deadline, she understood. If we had to travel to interview study subjects, Janice made sure that I was well and safe. Unlike many RAs who get stuck with piles of photocopying and lists of sources to track down, I was being mentored in a new discipline of study. Janice consulted my opinion on evaluating works and encouraged me to become an active participant in her field work. I read feminist poststructural ethnographic theory and I learned about the world of art production. It was, hands down, the best job I have ever had with the world’s coolest boss.

One of my other motivations for writing this post of praise for Janice is that I think she needs it. Positive feedback and praise are all too rare in academia – especially for anyone daring to speak and live their politics openly and doggedly. So I am saying it again: Dr. Janice Hladki is an amazing scholar, faculty member, teacher, and friend. Thank you.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Tuesday, 14 June 2011 14:14

Independent Academic

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.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Saturday, 11 June 2011 15:58

Speaking Out

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.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Saturday, 11 June 2011 15:57

Post/Academic Shame

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.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
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