Revisiting Trauma as a Graduate Student

In this post, a graduate student in a social sciences program reflects on some ways graduate experience may involve revisiting and managing past trauma.  

Yesterday, I woke up to someone wailing at the top of their lungs. It was the type of noise you would hear when people grieve uncontrollably. When I quickly scrambled out of my bed to look out of the window, I discovered nothing unusual other than maintenance fixing the community gate. No one else was outside of my apartment. As I unlocked my bedroom door to peek around the corner of the hallway, I overheard the television playing in the living room. I then realized that my roommate was watching a movie and the person screaming was Angelina Jolie. Nevertheless, this horrific wail triggered me unexpectedly and brought me back to a dark place that I had avoided for most of my adult life.

I immediately retreated to my room and threw myself onto the bed out of desperation. Memories of previous traumatic events began to flood back in my mind. My body began to tremble, while I was sweating bullets. My eyes glazed over and my breathing was tremendously heavy. My limbs became temporarily immobile. I ultimately went into a state of panic and anxiousness, while spiraling out of control with my thoughts. All those years of therapy felt completely worthless during that moment and nothing else seemed to matter. Trauma memories were stored in mind and my body quickly remembered and reacted consequently.

What seemed like hours lying motionless in bed was only about ten minutes. My body slowly began to recover as I realized that I was in a safe environment. I crawled to my yellow bathroom and eventually managed to take a shower, which always seemed to be therapeutic to me oddly enough. As my face became flushed by the scalding, hot water, I was reassured that I was very much alive.

During my panic attack, I initially thought that my body had ‘betrayed’ me by releasing trauma that I had buried for years. But after reading literature on trauma management and previously discussing trauma with mentors, I knew that the human body contributes physiological responses in triggering events to protect itself from potentially hazardous situations. My body was releasing the indescribable grief I held for so long. This unpleasant incident, surprisingly, gave me clearer insight regarding my recent traumas within the academy as a graduate student.

Since starting graduate school, I had unexpectedly relived my ‘big T’ traumas and experienced multiple ‘little t’ traumas. From discussing my horrific experiences with students related to gender, sexuality, and religion to discussing rape culture during lecture, I had to confront these fears for the sake of my health and activism. I murmur the words ‘me too’ underneath my breath as students disclose their trauma memories of sexual assault. I cry tears of joy whenever I successfully provide support and resources to students exploring their sexualities and gender, while reflecting on my personal discoveries. These moments have assisted me in my own trauma management by making me more comfortable discussing these sensitive topics in the classroom and activism.

Practicing self-care outside of graduate school has significantly helped me cope with my trauma. I now go on long walks during the evenings and watch the sunset. I call friends and mentors for advice. I recently rekindled my old love of vinyl records and dusted off my record player to play Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion. I distance myself from the academic world sometimes to keep my individuality, relationships, and passions intact. I force myself every day to not give into ‘graduate school guilt’ and to enjoy all the moments that bring meaning to my human experience. As a social scientist in training and as an activist, I must continue to practice self-care and know my limitations, so I can best help those I am assisting without being a ‘wounded warrior’ during the process.

Despite my successful attempts to recharge, I still see and revisit trauma every day in graduate school. This could be partly due to my unique experiences and understandings of the social world while performing multiple roles as a researcher, teaching assistant, graduate student, and activist. Nevertheless, in the social sciences, we do have the unique opportunity to change these all too familiar struggles within the academy, by maintaining interactive dialogues regarding trauma management and actively supporting members of marginalized groups.

Why is it that the academy often fails to tackle or even acknowledge the experiences of trauma among students and faculty, especially those who are women, LGBTQ people, and people of color? Surely academics recognize the crucial need of providing a safe, empathetic space to share their experiences of trauma, harassment, and microaggressions within the academy without the fear of negative consequence? Trauma should not be stigmatized in the academy nor should academics attempt to silence those who express their trauma memories. Leaders must drastically change how we train, support, and treat survivors of trauma. I hope this essay can be insightful and reflective to members of the academy, especially to those who are graduate students learning how to navigate revisiting experiences of trauma.

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Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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Activism As Expertise

 Eric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at University of Richmond, and editor of Conditionally Accepted – an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars.  In this post, they call for understanding activism as an important form of academic and intellectual expertise.    

 

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

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Of Children Born: The Journey of an Agender Lesbian Mother

Simone Kolysh is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. They are also an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College and Lehman College, teaching in Women’s Studies and Sociology. Their work addresses intersections of gender, sexuality and race.  In this post, Simone reflects on being an agender, lesbian mother of three children that parents against dominant narratives of gender and sexuality in their queer household. 

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a young body with smooth lines from the thighs to the small of the back. Mine is a body of valleys, soft and reminiscent of uterine battles and pain. It is a jagged, unshaven landscape full of stretch marks and cowardly veins that collapsed under pregnancy weight. Mine is a body that managed a labor without contractions and the darkness of postpartum depression, as the light of my first child was brought into the world on a hot July day. I rocked this body around the bed unable to loosen it free of panic but kept it close to my child so that no matter what was breaking inside me, I’d keep him whole.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a dancer’s body with perfect posture and well-shaped legs. Mine is a body that knows what an obsession dance can be but that movement no longer comes first. Though it responds to an inviting embrace of the Argentine Tango, it does so with a reluctant and bothered ankle, broken weeks before the light of my second child was brought into the world on the day I, too, was born just twenty-five years prior. I crumbled under my own pressure, onto a mailbox at the corner of Kings Highway and West 8th street. Cursing, I hopped home thinking that to labor with a broken limb is just what I needed.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not my mother’s body with frail shoulders and cheeks full of Botox. Mine is a body of risks, piercings and tattoo ink. When the light is right and the mirror is bribed, I can see what my lover finds gorgeous. And though I claw at my body because it does not always make sense to me, I remember how bravely it got me through my only labor without pain meds, as the light of my third child was rushed into the world at the Brooklyn Birthing Center. When I now feel my three children collapse onto my breasts that have struggled to breastfeed, I know that my body is a mother’s body and it is well worth the worship.

______ ~ ______

There is nothing like a slurred ‘You’re so sexy, baby’ from some guy on the street to remind me that I am seen as a woman despite holding an agender identity. Even men that aren’t strangers have said that I am ‘so obviously a woman’ because I turn them on. Such experiences of sexism, laced with homophobia and racism when I am with my Black female partner, make it obvious that my struggle around gender takes a backseat to our collective struggle as people of marginalized gender and sexual identities, trying to navigate a world where white, cisgender, and heterosexual men hold a significant amount of power.

Yet white, cisgender and heterosexual men may be the future demographic of my three children, ages eight, six and one. Therein lies the paradox of an agender lesbian mother trying to raise feminist kids in a society that teaches boys to put down women and people that don’t conform to mainstream ideas of gender and sexuality. As a scholar of gender and sexuality, a sociologist and a Women’s Studies professor, I have given my kids a critical eye towards gender, sexual and racial hierarchies. It also happens that my middle child has taken a gender non-conforming path, linking once more our gender journey as mother and child.

Shortly before he was born, I began to struggle with the category of ‘woman’ into which I was born and raised. Once I admitted to myself that I could not finish the sentence, ‘I’m a woman because,’ and explored identities beyond the gender binary, I was able to more fiercely carve out a safe space for my children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first battles took place between me and my biological family that not only rejects and erases my gender and sexual identities but also believes I am causing my children great psychological harm. So before I can think through my gender identity and how it has evolved through my motherhood, I must face how my own mother shaped my ideas of womanhood.

My mother’s main lesson was that one’s power as a woman comes from seducing men and appealing to the heterosexual male gaze, in addition to becoming a mother and a wife. Whether it was because our family is Russian-Armenian or that the prevailing attitude across most cultures is one of patriarchy does not matter now. When I showed interest in taking charge of my pleasure or being with women, she took me to see a psychiatrist. When, at twelve, I came out as bisexual, the closest word I knew at the time to describe being attracted to more than just men, she cried. When I married at twenty, she was glad, hoping it was all a phase.

Rather immediately, I became obsessed with getting pregnant since that meant ‘having it all.’ Three years later, I was a mother of an eight-month-old child, banished from my house for breaking up with my husband. I was in love with another man, someone who was my equal. He helped me come into my motherhood by taking over my child’s care from my mother who tried her hardest to teach my son traditional gender norms. To this day, my first child is more aligned with ‘boy things’ because at the time I did not feel strong enough to stand up to my family.

My new partner supported my being queer, the label I took up during college, and my exploration of gender. When we married, I was pregnant and determined to raise this child differently. As I became more involved in LGBTQ scholarship and activism, I struggled with my gender identity and it took about three years to publicly come out as gender non-conforming, during a panel on transgender identities. It was a fleeting moment of being true to myself in a public setting since, without constant coming out, no one can ‘tell’ I am not a woman.

I have to come out again and again because it never quite sinks in and some people simply forget that I am agender or that my pronouns are ‘they/them.’ Generally, I never correct people if they use ‘she/hers’ because I am glad to align myself with women and do, to a large extent, experience the world as women do. Though I would like to not be perceived as any gender, changing my physical appearance was never essential – I do not want to change my body, just the way others link it to womanhood. Not making a physical transition makes it difficult for people to see me as agender.

Even though mothering, to me, does not mean I’m a woman, it adds to my invisibility as an agender person because of the assumption that if one has been pregnant and birthed three children, that they are even more of a woman. It certainly made my biological family like me more, because I gave them ‘three healthy boys,’ a marker of status within a sexist community. It is as if the assumed gender of my children helped solidify my womanhood. And, as a mother, I was now responsible for raising them properly, to become grown men able to provide for their families through upward mobility.

Which is why I am glad that my oldest child’s first Barbie was the Halloween Barbie, scary not only for its lack of realistic measurements. Growing up in Russia, having a Barbie meant you were better off than other families. When naked ‘pupsiki,’ which happened to be gender-neutral dolls, were all we could afford, Barbie symbolized a ‘better life,’ a life sought in the United States. Now I am raising my own children in Brooklyn, New York, but there is little place for the Russian-Armenian values of my past. After all, it was not in my parent’s dreams to have their grandsons play with dolls.

Instead of being groomed to be ‘real men,’ my kids are raised free of gender norms, which allows them to develop their identities safely as they learn more and more about the world. And, prior to learning about gender, each of them gives me a gift. As an agender person, moments when I am not gendered are essential to my wellbeing and how I see myself but they are rare. When my children are young, they are able to see me as Simone or Mommy without gendering me or seeing me as different from them. Even when they have noticed physical differences between their bodies and mine, I have explained everything from menstruation to genital shape without attaching biology to gender.

So when my kids look at me during those early years, their eyes are a place of freedom. In a way, motherhood has given me a way to find moments of validation for my agender identity, even if they are short-lived. I cannot say enough of these transformative experiences because I know what it feels like when a person with no pre-conceived notions of gender is able to see me. The intrusion that takes place when the outside world teaches them their mother is a woman is always disturbing and requires significant re-education. Long ago, I made a blog called Gender/Detki – Rearing Logical Children. In it, I had hoped to provide concrete examples of how I addressed gender and sexuality with my children.

Looking over the blog now, it is clear that my children knew little of gender until they interacted with their maternal grandparents, who live downstairs, or their Russian preschool environment. Their father and I never called them boys and they were allowed to play with any toy and wear any article of clothing, including dresses, tutus and fairy wings. Their hair was never cut and they never heard a single thing about their behavior not ‘being appropriate for boys.’ Naturally, what they learned from us, their chosen family made up of multiple parents and family friends, clashed with what they learned from others.

It was quite a surprise for my children to learn that boys and girls are often separated in preschool throughout the day, that boys and girls have to go to different bathrooms and that specific recital roles, of gnomes or princesses, are reserved by gender. The length of their hair became an issue, because other kids would say they look like girls and their ‘girly shirts’ got laughs. When I dealt with the administrators, I did not disclose my agender identity or any additional details about my family. I argued that if girls were getting their hair styled on a daily basis, the same can be done with my children’s hair and reminded them of the fact that we paid generously for tuition.

Once my kids got attached to their teachers, they wondered whether gender was good or bad. I taught them that people have different opinions and that nobody has the right to police how their gender is expressed. Sadly, because of their encounters with other adults and children, they have learned to expect harassment based on their choice of clothing, toys or behavior. Some of the time, they would give in to the pressure and, for example, ask me to cut their hair. Because it is their body and their choice, I have done so but with tears in my eyes. The pain and the anger I feel on behalf of my children exacerbates my own trauma.

Now older and in public school, my kids manage a lot more backlash, which is hard for me to watch. As an adult, I have not yet figured how to freely express my agender identity without having to constantly educate uninformed cisgender people. Why should children as young as five have to face a similar struggle? Because knowledge is power, I have taught my kids about the construction of the sex and gender binaries, the link to sexuality and how gender and sexuality are affected by one’s race, class and any number of other social factors. These topics are hard enough for my college students to grasp but the way people react to my kids’ gender ‘deviance’ makes such discussions necessary.

I am proud to say that the more I learn about gender and sexuality and about myself, the more my children are able to benefit and feel supported in their own exploration. They have shown resilience and courage by resisting harassment and trying to live truthfully. Here, I would like to return to my middle child’s gender non-conforming path. Most recently, he has become quite interested in wearing a ‘girl’s bathing suit,’ which is not going to go over well at his swim classes, summer day camp or with my biological family. Part of my motherhood journey is to be an advocate for my child and so I am gearing up to have several conversations so that he may be able to wear his turquoise bathing suit full of ruffles. When I caution him, I am sad to say that he may not be allowed to wear it and that his grandmother and others will continue to make comments. He nods and answers, ‘I will ignore them, Mama, I will just ignore them.’

When I speak to others on his behalf, part of me wants to say that I am also like him, weird and proud of my ‘deviance,’ and that I would love for my kids to be part of the LGBTQ community. But their mother’s deviance makes it hard for others to accept my children. Now that I am firmly at peace with my lesbian identity, there are new definitions to go over since their peers are throwing around casually homophobic remarks. To me it is not difficult to reconcile being agender and a lesbian but trying to explain to my kids why the label ‘lesbian’ still applies even if I am not a woman is a bit of a challenge. What I say is that others perceive me as a woman which means having to face sexism and homophobia.

If I did not have to explain to my kids why much of the world thinks our family is ‘wrong,’ they wouldn’t need an explanation because they have been raised to embrace difference. Regardless of divorce, changes in family structure, new gender and sexual identities, like their mother’s lesbianism or future children, they are surrounded by loving adults who will help them usher in a new world. Along the way, they will offer acceptance in return. Want to see an example? I recently asked my middle child about his feelings on my not wanting a gender, on being agender. Not looking up from his video game, he replied, “I feel fine because it’s your choice and gender doesn’t matter at all.”

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Writing: Alone.

Craig Wood is a public school teacher as well as a PhD candidate with an interest in reflective practice methodologies. In this post, Craig’s reflections on lived experience and his conversations with fellow post-graduate colleagues become data and are expressed as a fictional representation. Where are you located in this story?

Promising himself just a short break, Frankie stepped out on to the terrace of his hotel suite. He was still 2500 words from finishing his Masters thesis and he could sense the demons of apprehension closing in on him.

Frankie sipped from his water bottle, drew a breath, and closed his eyes. The cacophony of noise from the Vegas strip below was somewhat dampened by nearly thirty stories of distance.

– Shrill screams from the Big Apple Coaster as it roared and clanked by the Statue of Liberty – The crisp sound of someone elegantly breaking the surface water of one of the hotel’s five pools

… laughter …

– Chinking glasses and cutlery falling on crockery

… voices …

– From the car park below, the bone jarring rattle of a hot-rod turning into West Tropicana Avenue and vibrating through the still air into the distance.

Then, the theme from Happy Days, Frankie’s ringtone for his manager, Sid. Frankie thought to reject the call but

– Hey Frankie! It’s Sid. Ya there yet?

– Yeah Sid.

Where are ya?

– I’m on the terrace.

Da terrace! Wadda ya mean ya on da terrace? Ya not spendin’ all damn day in dat hotel are ya?

– I just need to get away from everyone, Sid. Lock myself up. And write.

Frankie it’s Vegas! I gottya da best damn room, Frankie. Hey! Tell me I’m da bes’ damn manger, Frankie. Look down dat strip and tell me whadda ya see?

– Vegas, Sid.

Tha’s right, Frankie. Vegas. Three nigh’s time: You. Me. An da best damn ticke’s in town. Pacquiao V Bradley3. I’m da best ain’t I Frankie? Tell me I’m da bes’ manger.

– Yeah.

I’m da bes’?

– Yeah.

Good boy, Frankie. Now don’ go bustin’ yaself up on dat book o’ yours. You’re back in Vegas, Frankie. It’s your town. They luv ya!

– Yeah.

I’ll call ya tomorro’, Frankie.

– Yeah.

Frankie tried to at least say the words ‘Thanks, Sid’, and not just thanks for the room, or thanks for being the best damn manager. Frankie yearned to be able to find the words to tell Sid how important he was in Frankie’s life. Not that any of that mattered, Sid had already hung up. It wasn’t that Frankie was unintelligent. Since retiring from boxing he had balanced a public profile with his private pursuit of a Master of Science degree in Sports Management. Nor did he mean to be curt with Sid, Frankie loved Sid. It’s just that Frankie didn’t want to be around people; that’s a feeling he had had for some time.

Frankie looked out from the terrace. The sun’s rays of dusk were slowly rescinding from the Eiffel Tower, Caesar’s Palace, Treasure Island, and the rest; giving way to the flickering, shimmering neon energy of a Vegas night awakening. Beyond the desert the now deep dark blues of shadow blanketed the mountains that were holding up a horizon of pink and orange pastels. Looking at the emerald lights that were wrapping themselves around the terrace, Frankie briefly thought about giving himself just two rounds of bourbon in some bar, but, determined to stay focused, he sipped from his water bottle, stepped back into his room, shut the door and drew the curtains.

He was alone.

Letting the full drop of plush velvet separate him from the passions playing out beyond his terrace.

Alone.

Frankie flipped open his laptop and scrolled to the top of the document. Everything to everyone: Stories of balancing the demands of elite athletic performance with celebrity. By Frankie Rosetti.

He hovered over the title and changed the font size. Again.

Then the font type.

Then removed the underline…

… and made the title bold.

Then, clicking on his name, changed the text to Francis Rosetti.

An incoming email popped up on the screen. It was from Rex, Frankie’s supervisor.

Hi Frankie, I’ve just read your ethics chapter. Of course you are using pseudonyms for your informants, but I still need to be convinced about using your data to create an entire fiction.

Frankie reread the email seven times.

He could feel his eyes getting wet.

Clasping his hands over his cheeks he read the email twice more as waves of despair enveloped him.

Alone.

Frankie knew … in one of his three suitcases he had brought … he knew he had packed them … interview transcripts that were his data … as well as hand written minutes from all of the meetings he had with his supervisor … and he clearly recalled discussing how he intended to ethically manage his data in the dissemination of his research … it was that meeting, when, after interviewing twelve high profile athletes and meticulously transcribing the interviews, Rex had criticised Frankie for arranging the data alphabetically by sport: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Soccer.

“Where are the NASCAR drivers?” Rex had grilled Frankie, “and why are there no Olympic sports? These are omissions that are clearly gaps in your data. Where’s your own boxer colleagues? It’s all a bit basic, don’t you think”

Frankie clearly recalled leaving that meeting feeling demeaned. Like he was some kind of fraud who did not belong in graduate school. It was Sid who had offered a solution.

– Wadda ya so work’dup about, Frankie? You know I can take care o’ dis Rex if he’s bothrin’ ya. Waddas he know ‘bout sports?

Lissen, waddas it madder what sport anyone plays? Ain’t dis all about turning yasself inside out tryin’ to please everyone?

Sid had been right. Perfect even – not about the idea of taking care of Rex – but about the other stuff. So, with a new lease of energy, Frankie had rearranged his data in less than 48 hours. He had gone beyond ‘basic’ delineations based on specific sports and identified patterns in his data that he called: Personal tension; Franchise/team tension; Relationship tension; Fan tension; and Success tension. Then, with specific sports no longer an identifying label on the data, Frankie began the process of further de-identifying the data. The more he played with the data, the more readable it became. Even Sid commented.

– Dat interview stuff ya wrote, ain’t no one gonna read dat. But dis, well dis is like one of dem books ‘bout a person’s life.

Frankie found the minutes he was looking for. In a meeting with Rex where they were speaking about ethics and de-identification, another member of faculty suggested Frankie read Michael Angrosino’s Opportunity House. Frankie had done so. In fact he loved the idea so much that he had run a search to see who else had cited Angrosino. Google Scholar had returned over 2000 hits. A whole world had opened up: Laurel Richardson, Lisa Tillmann-Healy, Carolyn Ellis, Tony Adams. And then Frankie had found an entire book series dedicated to Social Fiction.

Rolling his chair back to his suitcases and opening the second one, Frankie looked over his collection of books by Norman Denzin, Michael Angrosino, Patricia Leavy, Art Bochner, and at least ten other social researchers. He clasped his hands out in front of him, then rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck.

Alone. But with a new sense of energy.

Frankie scrolled down to his chapter on managing data and began typing.

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“Unacceptable progress” towards degree

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he reflects on making unacceptable progress toward his PhD and feelings surrounding such experience.

I do not think I’d be here today if it were not for my sardonic sense of humor – I would have succumbed long ago to the stress and hypocrisy of the daily lunacy we call life. For the longest time, I was able to laugh away these most unfortunate aspects of human existence, at least while I was “on top” that is. However, I am no longer anywhere near “the top” in any socially relative aspect of my life… and ‘tis the season for funding. This essay is composed of my personal experiences concerning the perverted business of academia, how I am the embodiment of “unacceptable progress” towards my PhD in sociology, and why I’m still here. To be blunt- and to get the more complicated “why” question addressed at the very least – I honestly would not be an active student at this moment if it were not for mindfulness practices. For the first time in my life I am (kind of) comfortable with uncertainty and “letting go”.

Each year, my department conducts the uttermost warped evaluation process of graduate students enrolled in both the masters and doctoral program. In an almost cult-like gathering veiled in mystery, a handful of professors determine the most crucial part of a graduate student’s existence – Funding. Adjectives aside, this “annual review” is a rather reasonable procedure and makes perfect sense in the context of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. But here is the sick part of the whole thing – while paperwork for the annual review is due mid-December and funding decisions are essentially made in January (current graduate students are ranked in order in a top secret list), students are not informed of their fate until early March (via physical mail to add insult to injury). During that 3 month period, every other thought a graduate student has revolves around funding concerns for the upcoming year. This creates a demented cycle of mental and emotional harm which intensifies each day as March approaches. Speaking out against this process is not a perceptible option as there have been repercussions in the past.

For the past 4 years, around this time of year, I would eagerly check my mail each day in hopes of receiving a letter of funding. Each day it was absent caused me to worry incessantly, but this year is different. I am not expecting a letter. I am hoping, sure, but I am not counting on it. In previous years I was the golden boy of the department, an overachiever making acceptable progress towards my degree. Yet after a scuffle with a sadistic professor, a failed comprehensive exam, and 3 outstanding independent studies, I received a notice of unacceptable progress towards my degree completion this past month. I had stumbled this past year for sure. I was not mentally well from June to November following a series of deaths and illnesses in my family combined with a period of no insurance coverage (which meant no doctors visits or medication). Yet now that I am on my feet so to speak, the last thing I need is to dwell on my past failures. This seems to be the plight of civilized humans, to obsess over what could have been and what will become of the future.

“Are you sure you are not just in denial,” asked a good friend of mine when I told him that I am content with my unacceptable progress. This is a good question but I believe the answer to it is ultimately no. I am not denying that I am now officially certified as a lousy student, but rather embracing the fact that there is nothing I can do to change that at this exact moment. If a depressing string of thoughts about my academic fiascoes occurs late at night after a rather productive day, then why should I let it affect me? Instead, I now acknowledge these thoughts and the feelings they temporarily instill in me, and then I situate myself back in the present moment. I am so far managing this semester rather well – even though this essay is in part based on a paper which was late – and worrying about the past and future can only negatively impact me. Letting go of these thoughts of failure or impending suffering via mindfulness practices has been tremendously helpful in my day-to-day life, and therefore by default has also been helpful in the long run.

Perhaps the single largest stressor in my life is uncertainty. But in a paradoxical moment of clarity, I am now certain of one thing – that I will always be uncertain. I have never known the concept of “job security” and doubt I ever will, but that is part of the fun in life. I do not want to live a rationally ordered existence where one works to live. I rather enjoy spontaneity and wrinkles in life’s “plans”, and the ideal of omniscience tastes kind of bland. To be human is to feel, and perhaps this is part of the reason why negative experiences feel so bad – pain, misery, suffering, depression, etc. We do not want to have those feelings so we take measures to avoid situations where they may occur. But when the uncomforting notion of uncertainty is embraced as a constant and we let go of the desire for a predestined life, uncertainty becomes less distressing. I do not know where I will be or how I will secure life’s necessities come next fall and there is nothing I can do about that fact. Will worrying help improve my life situation? No, but I cannot help but to worry. In being mindful of worrying over uncertainty, I acknowledge the feeling and bring myself back to the present moment. Additionally, this is an empowering process (I am in control of my life right now) whereas worrying is a depowering process (I have no control over my fate). In an odd way, we gain power by surrendering power. We want control over our “fate” but this desire can overwhelm us with worry, guilt, and ultimately stress. Though a philosophical metacognitive argument, I believe that by letting go and enjoying the moment, we reclaim power over ourselves.

What I have been describing so far may seem self-defeating, judgmental, and critical in a negative manner. When I say that I am “the embodiment of unacceptable progress”, I am appealing to my own critically demented sense of humor. I tend to be a satirist and like to push negative aspects of my life into the realm of the absurd. Laughing is the kindest, most rewarding condition I can bring about myself. If I imagine that the professors who secretly make funding decisions do so in some kind of a dark ritual involving robes and goat blood – and this thought makes me laugh at the (very real) ridiculousness of the process – then I am better off for it. I know of nothing more loving than that.

I cried the entire day when I assembled my annual review this past December. After over 12 agonizing hours of reflecting upon and writing down my achievements and shortcomings (mostly shortcomings), I had a narrative of merely 1045 words to sum up the most painful year I have experienced so far in my life. I have not – and will not – receive any feedback on that most personal narrative either as that goes against protocol. So what good did that distressing day of forced reflection do to my then-present psyche? None whatsoever as the next few days in particular were spent more or less in a state of emotional and physical recovery. If I was aware of this then, I never would have engaged in that activity of needless suffering. I would have submitted a blank sheet of paper (if anything) to the annual review committee. The end result is me not getting funded, yet the approach I took was one of intense judging and self-loathing.

I have become accepting, even welcoming, of uncertainty as it relates to my future. This enhanced awareness has allowed me to reframe some situations in a more holistic light and eschew others altogether. I have no clue where I will be next semester and I am perfectly okay with this. I have even put some semi-serious applications into rather prestigious job openings – I did not get “hung up” on getting it right, but rather had fun writing the cover letters and such. Who knows what will happen. Maybe my passion for teaching will come across more clearly and I’ll get a call back.

Shit happens and it will forevermore. As a life-long overachiever, I have always strived to evade shit but was lost to the fact that I was centering my life on and around shit itself. Through my deliberate and rigorous avoidance of shit, my life had become shit. Shit happened and it will happen again, but right now as I write this paper, there is no shit in my life. It’s all good here. Even the cat boxes are clean. And that’s how I feel about my life right now as an “unacceptable progress” student. I may not complete my PhD by the time I am 30 years of age (a little over 3 years from now), but I feel “clean” by accepting this.

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The Anxiety Inscriptions

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences managing anxiety and graduate study.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts.

It is mid-February as I begin writing this post. I am sitting in my apartment at my computer, my hands floating apprehensively above the keyboard. This is an odd sensation considering the fact that usually I type so intensely that the tiny plastic squares pop off of my laptop and onto the floor. I can feel the words I want to write just out of reach, curled up in the darker corners of my brain. I start to feel my chest tightening. “No, no not right now, please not right now,” I plead with my brain. We have a constant dialogue going, but as of late it’s taken on a significantly more dominant role in those dialogues. I’ve come to know this feeling. It’s like watching a tornado bellowing toward me while being fastened to the ground. As the tornado gets closer and closer, I eventually give in to the fact that I will be swept up in the debris of my own internal natural disaster.

At this point, generally, when I can feel a panic attack coming on, I resign to it. Over the past few months, I’ve learned just how neurological and out of my control those events are, and that trying to resist them (and largely failing to do so) leaves me feeling significantly more exhausted, disappointed, and angry than if I just allow myself to lean into them, tear apart a cardboard box or two, and then sit quietly on my couch and listen to Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the calm after the storm.

See, I’ve known that I exhibit symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or Generalized Anxiety Condition, as I prefer to call it, since I am working against the internalized and institutionalized stigma that the ways my brain operates means there is something inherently broken about me) for a while. I’ve had nervous ticks like compulsively picking at my skin since as early as I can remember. I can be thrown into a state of total disarray over a two-lined text message that I’m afraid someone other than the intended recipient will get a hold of. I’ve found large crowds overwhelming for a long time, and regularly get up two to three times throughout the night to make sure I’ve locked my doors (so that no one can get into my apartment) and unplugged all the kitchen appliances / blown out all the candles (so that a fire doesn’t start when I’m asleep). On my walks to school, I try to replay my morning routine to make sure I locked the doors and unplugged the appliances, and if I can’t remember I will often text message my roommate (if he is home) to make sure I did. If he is not home, it is not uncommon for me to turn around and walk back home to check (even if I am only a few blocks away from school). I have to get to the airport or train station at least three hours before my trips out of town because I am constantly terrified that some catastrophic event will happen that prevents me from getting where I’m supposed to be, and I am known to check the pockets in my jacket up to 15 times before leaving my house, sometimes one right after the other, to make sure I haven’t accidentally lost my wallet, keys, or cigarettes.

All of these are symptoms I’ve learned to manage over the years. For example, I just plan my travel accordingly; I allow an extra 30-45 minutes before I go to bed to check the locks and plugs. I say out loud to myself that I locked my door as I leave my house in the morning so when I run over my morning routine repeatedly on my way to school, my own verbal affirmation to myself will be part of that narrative. And, historically, when I would get the occasional panic attack (every couple of weeks or months), I would allow myself to just experience them and make sure to try to get as much sleep as possible and drink lots of water.

Writing has also been a huge part of my anxiety management. For the past 14 years, I have been writing regularly in a journal. Presently, I am in my 94th book, and have no plans of stopping any time soon. Since I was old enough to hold a pen writing has been the place where I can document the conversations I am constantly having with my brain about all of the things I need to be worrying about or else something terrible will happen. Putting them down on paper both makes them feel real and also like something I don’t have to carry around in my head anymore (it can get quite crowded in there). Writing is the place I go during panic attacks when nothing makes sense and I can’t even really form complete sentences, yet something about the feeling of pen on paper keeps me anchored to this world. Writing is, without a doubt, my most significant and important survival strategy when it comes to my mental health.

So what do I do when I can’t write through the anxiety? For those of us that find a deep comfort in writing, the inability to do it is incredibly destabilizing and painful. Recently, I had to confront this question in a wholly unsettling manner.

For people who live with chronic mental health conditions and/or trauma, we know that triggers can pop up and derail our routines for hours, days, weeks, even months. We also know that triggers can come in the most unexpected contexts and magnitudes. So, just because one is perhaps prepared to handle a situation that has previously triggered them doesn’t mean they’ll be able to negotiate a totally new trigger with as much familiarity.

So, when my understanding of my life was recently upset by conditions entirely outside of my control, and unlike any trigger I’ve previously experienced, I began having panic attacks on a daily basis. Not only did they start occurring more frequently, but also at unexpected times compared to when they’ve previously boiled to the surface. By this point, though, I had convinced myself that writing was all I needed to settle the rush of chemicals in my brain. “Just write it out, Lain, you’ve done this hundreds of times before.” Yet when I sat down to put the chaotic words on paper nothing flowed. I was in a state of mental and emotional quicksand, sinking faster than I could get my words to secure me to this world.

This was even more unsettling because writing is not something I just do for personal pleasure or comfort anymore, it is part of my livelihood. I began to tell myself elaborate stories about how I will never be able to write again and my career as a sociologist is doomed to failure. I walked nervously around my apartment, screamed into pillows, ripped apart cardboard boxes, and smoked countless cigarettes to try and dilute the quicksand feeling but nothing worked. It was in this moment that my brain and I began to have a serious conversation and one unlike any talk we’ve had before.

“Maybe you should talk to someone, Lain. Maybe you really need that.”

“No, brain, I can manage this. You’re just really fucking with me right now. It’ll pass.”

“Will it?”

“It has to.”

“How do you know? Maybe you’re just like this forever. Maybe I’ll never stop.”

“Maybe I should talk to someone.”

“Should you, though? How do you know it will help anything?”

“I don’t.”

Before making an appointment with a therapist, I held my journal and a pen in my hand, so desperately hopeful that I would have some kind of breakthrough by just acknowledging that my mental condition is real, that this experience is out of my control (despite how much control I like to believe I have over it). Nothing. So, I made the appointment and had a flurry of panic shortly after doing so.

Over the past few months, I’ve started more openly acknowledging that I not only live with generalized anxiety everyday, but also that it profoundly influences my life in ways I never expected it would. I am continually learning that maintaining anxiety management strategies, such as writing, is one important component in a large equation of other management mechanisms, such as (for me) therapy, medication, painting, supportive friends and loved ones, and plenty of alone time. I am still learning to overcome the stigma associated with chronic mental health conditions (especially one like anxiety, that many people don’t believe to be real), and the path to figuring all of this out certainly defies the American ideal of a linear progress narrative.

Yet, here I am, in late March, sitting at a café finishing this essay that you are presently reading to the sound of Rilo Kiley’s song, “A Better Son or Daughter” and occasionally picking up the “I” and the “O” keys off the floor. The routine of bending over every seven or so minutes to fetch the tiny, plastic, lettered squares off the ground is a welcome reminder that I am still here, anxiety and all.

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Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman) is a Black queer feminist sociologist and intellectual activist; they are an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. They are the founder and editor of the blog, Conditionally Accepted, which recently became a regular career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  In this post, Dr. Grollman reflects on negotiating and making sense of trauma related to graduate education. 

“What’s the deal with this PTDS book,” my parents asked when they last visited me. Common understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the mental scars that soldiers, survivors of sexual violence and childhood abuse carry – certainly don’t call to mind any aspect of my life. My parents even sat through my talk on intellectual activism at the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows, in which I attempted to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate school that inevitably led me to be traumatized by my graduate training. But, maybe they assumed I was using the term “trauma” to be provocative or dramatic. With some embarrassment, I had to explain that I was, indeed traumatized by grad school, experiencing the symptoms of complex trauma, which is not (yet) officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (the major psychiatric guide for mental disorders in the US).

When my therapist pointed out the trauma – really only repeating back to me comments I had made just moments before about being traumatized – I also resisted. Seriously, who gets traumatized by educational training? I wasn’t physically attacked, I was not raped or sexually assaulted, and I did not endure torture or extreme warfare. Coursework, a qualifying exam, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and some teaching experience – these, on the surface, are about equipping me with the skills necessary to become an independent scholar, the skills necessary to obtain a PhD and, ideally, a tenure-track job. To help me to begin to see the trauma, my therapist encouraged me to write a trauma narrative.

So, I took some time to write down every challenging, offensive, and potentially traumatizing event or condition that I could draw from my memory. In the midst of writing about one memory, I would have to make a note to write about another that came to mind. “Oh, how could I forget about that!” I thought several times in this process. In the end, I had nearly filled a 70-page spiral notebook with such memories. When I flipped through the notebook, I asked myself, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?” Guilty of being an academic geek, I took the time to identify some common themes: 1) repeated exposure to and witnessing of microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination; 2) devaluing of my research interests, in particular, work on my own communities (i.e., people of color, LGBTQ people, and, especially, LGBTQ people of color); 3) the undermining of my career choices, namely eventually becoming a professor at a liberal arts college; and, 4) an explicit attempt to “beat the activist” out of me through the graduate training.

I have continued to work through my therapist to begin to recover from the trauma. The initial and, it seems, hardest step has been to name the trauma. It has taken some time to stop denying that grad school could be so bad, that I was somehow too weak to survive traumatizing circumstances, or that it is my fault for not leaving at the first sign of trauma. I, like most others, would never expect trauma to be one of the outcomes of graduate training. So, blaming myself or denying the trauma doesn’t help.

Once my therapist and I opened that door, I began to grow impatient. Now what? I wanted some sort of homework to do outside of therapy sessions, though I learned that was not my therapist’s approach. So, I looked into buying workbooks that I could do on my own. Unsurprisingly, most that are out there focus on what my therapist calls “big T Trauma”: sexual violence; war; child abuse; being robbed; having your house burn down; and, natural disasters. My own struggle with complex trauma – “little t trauma” – is the result of prolonged trauma that is interpersonal in nature, and likely occurred at a key developmental period (early adulthood, in my case). Since it is not included in the DSM, there are few workbooks that even mention it, let alone offer resources to help recover from it. But, I eventually found one that does: The PTSD Workbook (second edition), by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

I’m not as far as I’d like to be into the workbook, but I find that digging into traumatizing experiences is not something I care to do daily. But, so far it has been helpful to address it head on. Recently, I completed one of the exercises in which they instruct readers to “[t]hink of another person who has gone through a similar event. Knowing now what most helped you survive, what would you say to that other person?” I don’t think that I followed the instructions, but I ended up reflecting on something much more powerful. I ended up rewriting my trauma narrative, albeit an abbreviated version.

Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Let me give some context. In the process of naming the trauma, I have closed my memory around all that was taken away from me in the process of completing my PhD and obtaining my current tenure-track position. I entered my PhD program in sociology as an activist with a desire to study racism in queer communities using qualitative methods. I figured sociology would be more likely to open doors to gender studies, sexuality studies, and even student affairs than the other ways around. A desired joint PhD with gender studies was discouraged. A desired graduate minor in either sexuality research or gender studies was discouraged. An intended dissertation in trans health was discouraged. I also learned to self-police my interests; for example, I selected a qualifying exam in social psychology rather than gender, sexualities, or race/gender/class/sexualities. I left graduate school with a PhD, trauma, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a cute boyfriend, expertise in medical sociology using quantitative methods, and an acute awareness that I must hide any activist work or community service. The 28-year-old me was hardly an older and wiser reflection of the 22-year-old me.

That is, in my efforts to identify just how traumatizing graduate school was, I have focused almost exclusively on the negatives – what I have lost, what I compromised, what dreams have been dashed for the sake of job security. This has been a necessary step for me to stop denying how bad grad school was and blaming myself for the trauma. But, the unintended consequences of this focus is that I have lost sight of the ways in which I did survive and thrive, pursued my dreams and values, among other positive highlights of those six years. A while ago, I tried to write a positive-focused complement to the trauma narrative, and only came up with missing the excellent restaurants in Bloomington, IN and the friends that I made there. I also met my now-fiancé there, who moved to Richmond, VA with me. And, my excellent training – despite the compromises I made – opened a number of doors in terms of jobs and professional networks. So, hey – at least I don’t regret my time there. But, that effort felt like settling for an otherwise traumatic experience.

So, back to the prompt from The PTSD Workbook. I began my answer to the question about what I would advise to others, presumably to prevent being traumatized, with: “In the thick of [grad school], I attempted to maintain activities, relationships, and projects that were not valued by my program, but that fed my spirit nonetheless.” From there, I listed example after example of the things in which I was involved during my time in graduate school. Contrary to the sentiment that I left graduate school anything but a sexuality scholar, I identified plenty of examples of the ways in which I clearly demonstrate active involvement in this subfield. I published two articles on sexualities that were co-authored with people outside of my university; in fact, my advisors only became aware of these papers upon noticing them on my CV. I also started one on trans health late in grad school, which was finally published in September 2015. As the founder of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy – an initiative through the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality as UCSF – I organized a few events to promote sexual literacy on campus, including a conference on transdisciplinary approaches to sexuality research. I attended a few conferences and workshops in the field of sexualities. And, I also was involved in service on campus and in the community that promoted community-building for LGBTQ people, as well as healthy relationships in the queer community. I could go on…

In essence, I rewrote my trauma narrative. In this narrative, I didn’t sell out, I didn’t allow others to dictate my career, and I wasn’t powerless. Rather, this was a narrative about pushing back against mainstream expectations in sociology to build my career as a scholar-activist whose work focuses primarily on sexualities. This narrative allows me to recall ways in which I defined my career for myself, with necessary compromises along the way. Would the trauma have been worse if it weren’t for feeding my soul with sexualities work and activism? Or, was the trauma the result of defying mainstream expectations in sociology by pursuing such work? I’m not certain at this point, and cannot actually say what could have been. But, I’m in a better position to say what actually was. Yes, I was traumatized; but I was no passive victim.

I hope through speaking openly about the trauma, about the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me, and the training that attempted to steer me away from studying my own communities to make it easier for current and future marginalized grad students to weather the challenging circumstances of grad school.

 

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When it hurts not to write

In this post, J reflects on their writing processes, and asks readers to reflect on these aspects in their own lives and the way writing or feeling unable to write at a given moment feel and take shape in our own lives.

How do you go about writing?  What is your process?  What do you do when you cannot write for any given reason?  Do you look forward to writing or is it something you have to make yourself do?  Do you operate via a structured schedule, with set time limits and goals, and other rules to keep you on track?  By contrast, do you operate in a more fluid manner writing when the feeling comes or an idea presents itself or some combination of these and other factors?  Do you need to be indoors, outdoors, anywhere specific to write?  Do you keep little handwritten notes or recordings on your phone or maybe a journal littered with in progress ideas and analyses?  These are simply a few of the multitude of options and variations I have come across among other writers over the years.  In this post, I want to share my own experience to encourage others to reflect on how you go about the process of writing and what writing is like for you.

In my case, writing is simultaneously a major part of how I make a living and a huge chunk of my personal life.  Very few things that I have encountered in this world can match how wonderful it feels to write.  I write creatively, academically, publicly, privately, empirically, theoretically, collaboratively, and solo, and attempt to write as much as possible because it is a prime site of fun, pleasure, and enjoyment for me throughout my life.  Despite these lovely aspects of writing in my world, it is also deeply painful for me when I cannot write – I feel lost, like a part of me is missing – and no matter the reason, anytime I cannot write my moods, emotions, and even self concept (i.e., my own estimation of who I am, what I’m worth, etc) suffer greatly.  Put simply, for me writing is a delicate ongoing balance between pleasure (when I can do it I am filled with joy) and pain (when I cannot do it I feel terrible).  I can’t pretend this is the same or different for other writers, but this is what it feels like for me.

All of the above is complicated by the fact that I (best I can tell) have no control over whether or not I can write at a given time.  Likely tied to other elements of the way my brain operates, I go through shifts or fluctuations wherein sometimes writing is the easiest, most natural, and smooth experience in the world, and at other times I just cannot do it no matter what I try or what deadlines or projects I have at my disposal at the time.  In the former case, I’m basically in paradise writing every day and rather communicative in other ways.  In the latter case, however, my entire mood shifts downward, I become very quiet and isolated, and I feel broken or lost.  This ongoing experience means that I write in cycles – or bursts as a close friend of mine termed the process a while back – wherein the difference in me, in what I produce, in how I feel, in how I communicate, and in how I spend my time is noticeable to those closet to me (in fact, many times these wonderful people get very worried about me during “not writing” times because of how down, distraught, and isolated I become and I’m quite lucky to have people who care so much in those moments and reach out to check on me).

This cycle in many ways dictates or shapes the rest of my life.  From August 2014 until the end of January 2015, for example, I could not write, and as is generally the case during such a “not writing” period I was very isolated, depressed (both emotionally and in terms of clinical symptoms) most of the time, and people I collaborate with had to basically wait until the part of me that writes – as one friend put it – “came back to life.”  On the other hand, from February 2015 until the end of November 2015 I experienced a nonstop burst wherein I wrote every day, filled up the inboxes of colleagues, collaborators and friends, and felt happy, satisfied and able to be social (as much as I ever am).  At present, I’m somewhere between the two extremes, which is honestly a new place for me.  I can write a little bit, but its harder than when I’m “on” one of my bursts, but I also have days where I just stare at the screen and want to (or do) cry and scream.  I don’t know if this is a new addition to the cycles or a one time thing, but I feel like I’m located in between the two versions of me I’ve become comfortable with.

This newfound in between “writing” and “not writing” led me to wonder what writing is like for other people.  While this is something I have talked with many people about, I thought it might be useful to ask on a broader scale what the writing processes looks like for others, and also to offer my own experience for anyone who has yet to learn that there is not just one way to go about writing (a curious lesson I come across that some undergrad and graduate students have picked up from some unknown sources).  After years of seeking advice, figuring out my own methods, and working with people who have very different methods (for example both Xan and Lain here at Write Where It Hurts have different writing processes and experiences than I do), I’ve become fairly certain that there are a wide variety of ways people go about the process of writing.  As a result, I want to encourage others to think about these processes, what works and doesn’t work for a given person, and how we can utilize such insights to both Write Where It Hurts and manage the ways it may hurt when we have trouble writing.

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Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

 

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he discusses experience with comprehensive exams often required for doctoral study, and the ways such exams mirror hazing patterns in other institutions and groups.  

As many graduate students know, comprehensive exams (sometimes also called preliminary exams, qualifying exams, prelims, comps, etc.) are often part of the grad school process. I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard horror stories about such tests from senior graduate students and faculty alike from the earliest days of grad school. The stories from graduate students went something like this:

 

“Oh my GOD. The semester you take the test is the worst semester of your life.”

“Get ready to hate everything when you take them.”

“I mean, people have failed before. It’s been documented.”

“Jeez, I don’t even remember half the stuff from the test, but make sure you know the stuff for the exam.”

“They’re so hard. The worst. Ugh I hate them.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

From faculty:

 

“You will seriously need to study. Plan on doing nothing else the semester you take them.”

“Your exams are what first demonstrate that you are going to be a scholar in (area X) of (discipline Y). So you need to take them seriously.”

“You need to remember everything from the readings. Yes everything.”

“People have failed them before.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

Now, in my particular situation the students were assigned or selected a certain number of texts to read in order to reflect their expertise in a specific area of the discipline. Then over the course of many hours (sometimes in one day, sometimes in two) they sat in a specified room and typed our responses. Faculty then assessed our responses and assigned a score.  Then, we learned our score, but never saw the test again.

For me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, hearing all of this before taking my exams was extremely disconcerting. As I listened to my colleagues and faculty gush about the horror of the tests I started to wonder why we even do them anymore. Over and over again I heard graduate students and faculty alike reinforcing the notion that the tests need to be taken seriously, that they’re intimidating, horrifying, traumatizing even.

In the midst of all this advice, multiple graduate students repeatedly told me that no one ever asked them about the test in the months/years after completing them, so “just get through it and move on”. Each person I talked to portrayed their method of studying as the way to study for these tests. People shared their “survival strategies” with me in what seemed like an effort to soften the blow of this supposedly horrendous process.

When it came time for me to start studying, I kept all these things in mind: the terror of the test, the embarrassment that would come if I didn’t pass, the stress of being a slow reader trying to get through thousands of pages of texts. I woke up in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety more than once. It seemed my colleagues were right: comprehensive exams are terrible.

“But why?” I wondered to myself. “Why do they have to be terrible if this thing is just a valorized essay test that no one will ever ask me about ever again in my life once it’s over?” it was during this reflection that I realized that all comprehensive exams really are is a glorified hazing process for graduate students.

And I get it, if you think about it as a hazing process it all makes sense:

The tests are framed as the thing that will make you an expert in a field. This framing reinforces the notion that they are not only important, but that if we all really want to be experts then we need to do really well on them. In reality, a completed dissertation or set of publications is more likely to reflect your expertise in a given area, but pointing this out might undermine the ritual of comprehensive exams.

The tests are vaguely framed as scary and something we need to take seriously, even though most people pass, most programs allow you to take them more than once, and no one will ever ask you about them ever again. This fits the guidelines of a hazing ritual perfectly. If we aren’t repetitively told that the tests are scary then maybe we would see them for what they really are: timed essays shrouded in hype. Also, if students are scared into (over) studying for the test, then faculty can say “you must not have studied hard enough” in the face of someone who does fail. In this framework, failing the test becomes a personal failure, instead of a problem with the structure of the examination, and the structure of academia more broadly. Namely how the structure itself is specifically disadvantageous to neuro-atypical, racial/class/gender/sexual minority students who have been told over and over that we aren’t good enough, will never be good enough, and can’t succeed.

“Surviving” makes you one of the team, and then you get to tell future generations how awful the process is. This makes me think of a friend of mine who was involved in Greek life during his time in undergrad. A few years before he pledged his fraternity, their chapter got in trouble for hazing. As a result, they were under serious surveillance from the national office of their fraternity. The brothers who were seniors during his freshman year were the last pledge class to get hazed and were extremely bitter that the incoming class didn’t have to navigate the same emotionally stressful, degrading, “bonding” activities that they did. To these older brothers the initiation of my friend’s pledge class cheapened the meaning of brotherhood.

Comprehensive exams, as they exist now in many programs, operate in effectively the same way: Faculty and senior graduate students who made it through this format get to maintain boundaries between “them” and “us”, those who are “in” on the knowledge and those who are “out.” They do this by engaging in the same, ritualistic scare tactics that they experienced before they made it through the process, and in so doing justify and reinforce the meaning of their own experiences with the hazing process. Otherwise something that they spent a significant portion of their time in graduate school worrying about might be rendered meaningless.

Once you pass them, they don’t really matter. I took my comprehensive exams. I passed. And I’ve never been asked about them since (with the exception of other nervous graduate students who will take them in the future).

Now, to be fair, I learned a lot while studying for the tests, and it was not a total loss. I also understand the argument that we need to have something in place to make sure that people who are getting PhDs are truly experts in a field. I agree, I’m just not convinced that this format of evaluation is it. I also know that not all programs use this format, in fact some of them have (what I think) are much more useful evaluation methods.

For example, in an academic context where publishing is becoming increasingly more important, why not have students review a specific body of theoretical literature, craft a paper that makes a new theoretical contribution, and then submit it for publication? This format allows students to get the experience of reading broadly and deeply across a field, and the written result of all that work isn’t thrown into a vault where their ideas just waste away. Students could also do an archival research project of all the literature in one or two journals that relate directly to their dissertation topic and give an oral or written (but not timed) defense of that literature. Doing this could help students expedite their dissertation proposals and would give them a wide and deep understanding of their disciplinary sub-field/ fields.

I don’t expect changes to the current format overnight. So while what I mention above are just two potential alternatives to this format, I would like to share some thoughts for students who may be getting ready to take comprehensive exams that look like the ones I took:

Do take them seriously, but remember that they are not the end of the world. Yes, these tests do determine when/if you get to move on in the program, but they are not the be all and end all of your worth as a scholar or a human being.

If your program allows you to take comprehensive exams more than once, think about the first time you take them as a practice round. This is easier said than done, especially when the implicit knowledge around one’s department might be that failing is shameful. However, if you can do this it helps put them in perspective – just think, if you have to take them again at least you will know what you’re getting into. Also, you can spend the semester(s) between the first and second time taking them as a chance to work on your dissertation proposal, and then defend your proposal immediately after you (in all likelihood) pass them the next time.

Hey, senior graduate students and faculty, stop treating failing like its shameful. If you passed, good for you, but just because someone doesn’t pass their first time (or ever) doesn’t lessen their value. Help shrink this as a departmental (and academy-wide) norm. Yes, there might be people who fail because they didn’t study, but it can often be significantly more complicated that that. Again, minority scholars specifically are told their whole lives how likely we are to fail at any time. Instead of reinforcing this logic, work to create an environment where students can do better the next time.

Develop your own studying method(s). In the months leading up to comprehensive exams you will likely be inundated with advice on the best study methods. Really, the best method is whatever works for you. Maybe you audio record conversations you have with yourself about the readings, maybe you make flashcards. You could be someone that needs to structure every hour of their day, or a person to whom that degree of structure feels suffocating. Perhaps you discuss the readings with a study buddy over drinks or coffee, or conversely, you might like to study more solitarily. These and dozens of other methods exist – trust yourself to figure out the one that works best for you and run with it.

Don’t lose yourself. Take some evenings off and hang out with friends (or not), allow yourself to watch Netflix between a reading or two, take a long walk and listen to music – whatever feels like a relaxing activity to you, don’t be afraid to do it. In all likelihood that one evening, or one episode of Breaking Bad won’t make or break your experience with comprehensive exams.

All in all, we could seriously use a critical examination of the pedagogical reason these tests exist in this fashion. For now, though, hopefully this framing will help bring the process back down to earth for folks who will be managing this ritual in the future.

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