I am here, despite it all

The elections have taken over everything. It’s been the dominant topic of conversation I overhear in the streets and on the bus; it’s what my colleagues and students talk about over breaks and occasionally in the classroom; and it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People are rattled and they are truly afraid. Too many posts have been written about this at this point for me to even try to link to them all.

I want to use this post to offer a slightly different perspective. I am a foreign scholar, currently on a temporary contract and looking to find permanent employment in the United States. A few months ago I applied for a Green Card, and I’m still waiting for that process to run its course. This post is about what it’s like to decide to adopt a country that seems to have decided it may not want to adopt you back. I say this despite the fact that I know not a single person who’s expressed this thought to me, but clearly those people are out there. So while my American friends are talking about despairing and even leaving the country, I am working hard to become a member of their community. I’ve had several conversations with them about why I chose to come and stay here, and what my other options might be. Their desperation seems commensurate with their awareness of what things are like outside the United States,* so this post is my attempt to explain my own thinking on this topic.

In my home country, I am not a racial or religious minority. But I hold political views that are never represented in government and decision making, and I hold no hope that this will change any time soon. Some of my activist friends do amazing work protesting policies they disagree with and hateful decisions and actions taken in their names, but the work is incredibly time-consuming. For most, it’s taken over their lives and has become a second job. For me personally, there are no jobs in my field there, and it’s not clear that I could live there even if I wanted to. Most of my friends who have similar backgrounds and goals as me have left for other countries, although most hold out hope of being able to one day return.

I have lived in several European countries. Europe was a big paradox for me. I lived in countries where I felt incredibly comfortable, and where I was not, myself, a persecuted minority. Or, at least, the opinions were probably there, but it wasn’t acceptable to express them out loud and I never once felt singled out or hated. Yet I can’t ignore the fact that others are now persecuted minorities, that immigrants are disliked,** and most importantly, that these same countries have a track record of ruthlessly dispatching with their minorities, to put it mildly. Parts of my family were some of those minorities. It shaped how my parents were raised and how I grew up; it’s a central issue in my life that has shaped my personality and my belief system. Being comfortable in Europe scared me, because my ancestors who felt the same paid for it with their lives.

For close to a decade now, I have lived in the United States. This is where my home and family are. I have no illusions that it’s a perfect country. It’s not. If ever there was a doubt, the current political climate reminds us that there is much work left to do. But the United States was formed on values of freedom and liberty. It is one of the most diverse countries I know. It has federal, state, and local governments. Civil society plays a big role in our daily lives. There are many opportunities to contribute and make a difference. I want to believe that here, atrocities like those that happened elsewhere cannot happen.***

Here, I am a minority. You wouldn’t immediately know it from my accent or how I look, so I am one of the lucky ones. But I am not oblivious to the hateful speech around me. Yet even with its imperfections, I take America to be one of the most successful social experiments of the modern era. Things are difficult all over, but that’s not a reason to give up. I choose to fight to make my adopted country better, and in the process to make my own life better. I started with small gestures: a sign on my office door ensuring all that they are welcome here; chats with students to reaffirm the same and to make myself available as a source of information and support; donations to organizations such as PP and the ACLU; local demonstrations. I am hoping to find a local organization to volunteer with.

I hope that others will accept me and join me. I refuse to believe that this is something the US cannot recover from, even if it does get far worse before it gets better. It’s up to all of us not to give up. This is a golden opportunity to restart the fight at the grassroots level, to rethink how we reach out to others and how things got to be this way. Mostly, I hold onto a broader perspective, and I retain my optimism. Hard work and faith have gotten me this far, and I am counting on them–and on you–not to disappoint me going forward.

 

* and how things really are here in the States. Things haven’t actually changed that much – but some of those who could previously be oblivious now can’t do that anymore. Noticing the racist, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, … sentiments can be horrifying if you never knew they existed, or you thought they were only held by a fringe minority. Those who despair the most appear to be not those who face these sentiments, but those privileged ones who weren’t aware of them before, and hence whose worlds were shaken up the most.

** as evidenced by recent election results in several of these countries.

*** and that I’ll fight with all my heart to stop any such attempts. And that I’ll know to get out in time if I lose the battle. Because I am optimistic, but not naive.

Getting out of a(nother) hole

When you’re in a hole, it’s so hard to see your way out of it. What’s worse, for a while there, I didn’t even know how deep the hole was. I was getting by, and on paper you would even think everything was going great. But in reality, for about two years now, things haven’t been good at all. Mental Illness Awareness Week was two weeks ago, and it is time for me to reflect on my journey out of a pretty dark place and to stand in the light.

The last two years of my life have been objectively pretty shitty. My spouse cheated on me not long after we moved to a new city for me to start my postdoc*, and the relationship eventually fell apart; a close family member had some serious health problems and I was too far away to help**; a TT job offer got rescinded because of toxic*** backroom politics of the kind that I don’t think I’ll feel safe talking about even when I’m old and tenured; and inner-departmental politics were unhealthy and I was caught between students who were desperately asking for help and an abusive faculty member who was too powerful for me to take on.

Unsurprisingly, this has generated a lot of anxiety. Eventually, a friend dragged me to the crisis center at the university’s mental health clinic, and I got diagnosed with panic attacks. I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was alone in a new city, away from my good friends and family, unhappy with my work life, and not doing much better in my personal life. I developed a dislike for the city I was in, and also didn’t enjoy the weather. I tried seeing two different therapists over the course of about a year and a half, but I can’t say that it was doing very much for me. There were just so many things going wrong that I couldn’t control, and of course the uncertainty of also being on the job market at the same time was not helping at all. My insurance wouldn’t cover more than roughly a 45-minute session every other week, but things were moving far too fast and there were just too many of them happening at the same time for it to be effective.

At various points I thought that I was doing better. Professionally, papers kept coming out, collaborations were ongoing, I was presenting at all the important conferences, and I was getting praised and noticed by major players in my field. I was doing my best to keep business as usual. On the personal life front, I decided to take a break from dating to focus on myself, and was doing my best to go out and meet new friends who wouldn’t know about all the messes in my past. I started exercising, and I was also eventually able to take some time off to travel home and be with my family.

But there were also relapses. Really, I think the best way to describe it is that I was fragile. Any little thing could break me. Getting stuck in traffic and being so late for a talk I was supposed to give in a reading group that it had to be rescheduled. Breaking my phone and having to get it replaced. Getting an abstract rejected from a conference that wasn’t even all that important. Things that are perhaps unpleasant, but on a normal day I would shrug right off. But these (and other) bumps in the road would send me spiraling down for days, to the point of considering suicide and even googling ways of doing it. I wasn’t at the point of actions, but the thoughts were there.

I kept this from my family. They were far away and spending time in the hospital with a sick relative. They clearly knew something was wrong, but I doubt the knew the extent. Most of my friends are also colleagues, and the fear of rumors kept me from talking to them (there was already enough gossip about my job offer and relationship going around as it was). Besides, this wasn’t really something I wanted to talk about on the phone with someone who was far away. I had one close friend who I trusted with this information, who helped me talk through the irrational thoughts I was having.

I knew I needed to make a serious change.

And as luck would have it, I was able to land a new job and move away. I resolved to take the change of location and the opportunity to start over with new colleagues as my chance to change the narrative. I still had to wait several months for my new insurance to kick in, but as soon as I could, I found a doctor I got along with, and I told her the whole story. Following her advice, I decided to start taking an SSRI. I was wary at first — I don’t even like taking meds when I have a headache. But I did my research and decided it was worth a shot. I use glasses to correct my vision and I don’t think that’s in any way “messing with reality” or “not really me”, so why not do the same for my mental health?

The change was immediate and remarkable. I had some side-effects that completely went away within a couple of weeks, but I immediately started sleeping longer and better. I have been more upbeat and, I suspect, louder. Initially this was strange and I felt like I needed to hold back when I felt like I was being too outgoing. But it’s funny how fast it’s become natural. Several of my friends who I saw when I went to visit my PhD institution told me that I seem very happy. And even some colleagues who see me no more than one or twice a year remarked at a recent conference on how glad they were that I seem to be in a better place in life. Which I was mortified by, to be honest, because who knows what kind of godawful vibes I was sending before if people who are passing acquaintances noticed.

It’s only been about two months since this change started. I am still adjusting to the new me. What I now think is the ‘real’ me. I am now finding it hard not to hold back when I want to laugh and be loud, as ridiculous as it sounds. I am listening to music again, and its just occurred to me that I haven’t been doing that for almost two years. I just bought myself some colorful socks. I wear less black. I wasn’t even aware that I was making those choices, but I just seem to want different things now. There are still setbacks, and I have no illusions that everything in my life is fixed. But I really do believe that I can handle things now. I am slowly making my way back out of the hole.

Some of the things that have helped me most were finding a trusted friend to share this with, so it’s not a secret I am keeping from everyone (though I am very selective in who I share it with!), exercising, time-tracking, and actively scheduling time off for social activities, grooming time, and sleep. I am trying to get better at saying ‘no’  to things, and when I’ve done so, I’ve found that everyone around me has been supportive and understanding.

I am not advocating for or against deciding to take medication. But I am advocating in no uncertain terms for taking care of your mental health. Needing to seek help is nothing to be ashamed of. Seeing a therapist is nothing to be ashamed of. And needing medication, if together with your doctor you decide that that is the right course of action for you, is nothing to be ashamed of. Getting the help you need is something to be proud of, and you are not alone. So many of us are sharing the hole with you, and if you just reach out, we will hold your hand and help you through.

* but long enough after we moved for them to have met all my new colleagues, so people kept asking about them long after we had split up.
** they are doing better now, thankfully.
*** in fact, from all that I’ve been able to gather, some people’s actions were actually illegal. Certainly they were unethical.

Have you been in a hole lately? Share your experiences being in the hole and your advice on how to climb out of it.

Figuring out a new department

The first day of class is upon us. I am at a new school, and doing my best to figure out the culture of the institution, the students, and my department, without committing any major faux pax. Faculty orientation gave me the institution’s official beliefs about who it thinks it is, and that is useful. I am very glad I went. But that can only go so far. How do I really find out what the undercurrents are? I can’t see them, but at every institution that I have been at, they have inevitably existed. I am in a temporary position, but it is one that the department is most likely going to begin a TT search for in the coming year. So in many ways, this is an extended job interview, and my job is to not mess it up.*

They talk to me about enrollment numbers and bringing students into the major. I hold back from telling them that with them losing all the faculty in my sub-field and bringing me in just a few weeks ago, it would be a bit much to expect students not to take notice and act accordingly.** They encourage me to begin new initiatives and join multiple projects, but it’s not yet clear to me that there is funding around to support any of it. At least among the faculty members who I interact with more regularly, there seems to be genuine good will. I do really like the enthusiasm, but I do my best to both guard my time and make smart choices about whose suggestions I take seriously.

Since getting here, I have taken several steps to try to better understand my department’s culture:

1. Attended all official orientations of every kind. If nothing else, they have been a useful way of making new friends in a new city.

2. Had an official meeting with the Chair and DGS to ask about expectations from me as a new faculty member in the department, as well as students’ expectations from me as an instructor. A lot of it was silly stuff that I just needed answered: do I print materials or can I expect the students to? how much reading can I expect them to do in a week? what do they actually learn in prereq X?

3. Unofficially chatted with students and asked them versions of the same questions. Noted the variability in answers but mostly the constants.

4. Invited other young faculty members out for coffee. They are going to be very important for my mental health.***

5. Talked to off-campus mentors about what they know (which unfortunately for me, in this case, isn’t all that much).

6. Observed. Sat quietly in talks and social events and tried to make sense of who sits next to whom, who speaks sarcastically of whom when they are not in the room, etc. This one really scares me — I am convinced that there are some intrigues between some senior faculty members, and that they run deep.**** But I can’t quite figure out what they are.

Being the new gal can be disorienting. But as the new year begins, I am determined to be happy and productive, and to do my best to steer clear of trouble. Now if only I were better at detecting it…

How have you dealt with invisible inner-departmental politics at a new institution?

 

*And at the same time, also not to get over-excited about it. Hiring decisions are as complex as they are obscure.

**Relatedly and worryingly, this department has failed to tenure three young women in the past few years. Men don’t quite seem to have the same problem. So, there’s that.

***Speaking of which, I’ve also already made sure I have a PCP and an understanding of the mental health system here, in case I need to use it. If there is one thing I’ve learned is that this is something to figure out now, when I’m doing well, and not when I’m in a crisis.

****And that they affect hiring decisions.

The dreaded question period

The Q&A – arguably the most angst inducing part of one’s entire talk. Inevitably someone will raise their hand and ask a question which the speaker did not anticipate and which they are not prepared for. But who is that someone? On occasion, it is a young scholar, itching to make him or herself known by asking a smart question. Often, it is the senior (male) academic who is sitting in the front row and raises his hand after each talk. Where are the women?

At two recent conferences, I kept track of who was in the room: who were the presenters, what was the proportion of men to women in the audience, and who was asking the questions. The first, a small conference of about 50 participants, had a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the audience with only a handful more men than women. There were 12 male speakers and 12 female speakers. Across the different Q&As, there were a total of 66 questions asked by men and 25 questions asked by women. The second conference was larger, with roughly 150 participants, with a more skewed audience with only 35-40% women. The talk distribution similarly reflected this makeup of the audience, with 14 male speakers and 9 female speakers. The Q&A then featured 73 questions by men and only 13 by women. In both cases, the majority of questions were asked by senior scholars, the majority of whom are men. When young scholars raised their hands, roughly a third of the time, they were overwhelmingly men, as well.

While anecdotal, these numbers speak to a current trend in my field. Conference organizers are generally aware of gender biases and do a decent job of accepting both male and female speakers at encouraging numbers. They also almost always make sure to have both male and female invited speakers.* And yet clearly there is still a problem. Continue reading

Life on a work visa

This year, like the two that preceded it and at least the next to follow, I will be unable to make summer plans. As someone with a non-permanent position, I am constantly chasing opportunities and gearing up to take the next step, move on to the next position. I expect to live in a different location from one year to the next. As a non-permanent resident, my journey is compounded by visa complications that make me unable to travel for anywhere from 2-4 months around the summer months.

This means a not insignificant amount of lost opportunities for me. I never accept invitations to teach at summer schools or speak at conferences or workshops. I don’t even apply for summer conferences, I just don’t know where I’ll be over the summer and in the following year. In fact, right now, as I worry about a commitment I foolishly made two years ago to attend an event this July, I am unable to make travel plans because the one thing I do know is that I will not live in the same place in July as I do now. But where I will live – and more relevantly, where I should book a flight from/to – that is at the moment a mystery. These difficulties, and the anxieties that they give rise to, are shared between all of us who have temporary jobs.

Being born a citizen of the “wrong” country brings with it an additional layer of complexity, beyond that experienced by other transient academics. Continue reading

Good times

My last few posts on TSW have been less than positive. It is time to reflect on the good things in my life.

I am on the job market again this year. This is not in and by itself a good thing; but I am getting pretty damn good at it. I got a good number of interviews, and just got back from my last campus visit a few days ago. I won’t hear back for another week or so, at least, so this is when hope is at its highest. Even when I don’t get offered a job these days, colleagues on search committees reach out to tell me about the good aspects of my application and to give me feedback on why the choice went another way. They don’t have to do that, and I appreciate it very much. I actually really enjoy the visits themselves — traveling to new places, meeting faculty members I didn’t know before and interacting with bright students, giving a talk and getting asked good hard questions, getting to think about my future and how I would like to shape it. I also have an excellent support system that helps with everything from listening to me practice my talk over Skype twice in one week to fixing page breaks and font issues in my handout the night before the talk. I am very lucky. Continue reading

Being a shadow advisor

My department has several wonderful faculty, working in a variety of areas, producing great work and supporting their students. There are also a handful of faculty who are not as great: toxic toward their students, condescending, generally hard to work with. As luck would have it, they are all in the same subfield, which I happen to have an expertise in, too. From my perspective, this has been a rather sad discovery: on paper, this is a great career opportunity. I am at a place with multiple famous researchers, who have work that clearly and obviously interfaces with my own, and who would be great people to talk and work with. However, it became clear early on that they are anything but great to talk to, so I have been keeping one-on-one interactions to a minimum and instead have opted for large group meetings and presentations, so I still get the feedback on my work that I require. I’ve also been cultivating interactions with others on and off campus. I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at that, so it’s not what I want to concentrate on in this post.

I feel particularly bad for these professors’ students. Over the time that I have been here, several of them have reached out to me. Some simply looking for a sympathetic ear, someone who can help them navigate their difficult relationship with their advisor. Others needing a confidence boost, after being repeatedly told by an advisor that they were not good enough. With some, I have also begun a more substantive advising relationship, since I have expertise in their areas of research. And this is where it gets tricky: some of these professors are also isolationists–they have told their students that they shouldn’t talk to anyone other than them. So, I have been meeting with students “off the books,” because I want to help, but this entire situation is clearly unhealthy. Continue reading