Why I can’t write a good personal essay

I haven’t gotten a pay check since my fellowship ran out in 2017. Funding is scarce for students in the end of their PhDs and scarcer still for international students with disabilities, so it’s not too surprising that I’ve been turned down for everything I’ve applied for.

Almost 5 years ago, I wrote with regard to applications for funding and otherwise:

Use your story and the survival skills you’ve gained to succeed. I use my escape from rural poverty in personal statements to show that I have incredible drive, creativity, and independence.

But I just can’t do it any more. I can’t make my life a funny, moving, educational story for someone else to judge.

I used to follow my own advice. I turned the ways in which I don’t fit neatly into the world into pat inspiration porn. I talked about disability, adverse childhood experiences, being queer in a culture of religious fundamentalism, childhood poverty, and sexism as obstacles for me to overcome in a story to inspire funders. And I received fellowships that helped me make it through several years of my PhD, a year and a half of unpaid medical leave and many uncovered medical expenses.

But now I’m too tired, too sad, too angry to twist my life into those kinds of narratives. Those things are structural problems reflecting deep prejudices, oppression, & exploitation. I can’t wrap up the things that hurt me the most in a cute package to make someone feel good about giving me money. Funders seem to want to a story where where cleverness and elbow grease lead make light work of disability and other “obstacles.” Ultimately, telling those stories was personally destructive because I kind of came to believe those stories over time. And they aren’t true.

A little smarts and hard work and luck can’t make my chronically ill body “productive.” Even if they did, it would only make it alright for me – and that’s not good or fair. Telling those stories for so long made dealing with the reality of living-with-chronic-illness-under-capitalism/being disabled and past traumas really difficult.

As soon as I decided the problem wasn’t me, but the response of people and systems to me, I stopped getting funding. As Dr. Sara Ahmed says, “when you expose a problem, you pose a problem.”

Chronic migraine isn’t an obstacle for me to overcome. It is an illness that I live with. It hurts, it’s unpredictable, and the symptoms are strange and varied. But most of my difficulties would not exist in a less ableist, racist, sexist, and capitalist society – the poor care, the financial anxiety, the relationship power dynamics.

  • Migraine would have proper research and maybe even treatment – it wouldn’t be ignored, dismissed, and underfunded in large part because it predominantly affects women (and especially poor women).
  • My disease wouldn’t be stigmatized and belittled in popular culture, despite severe migraine being categorized by the WHO in its most severe disability class along with such diseases and conditions as active psychosis, severe depression, quadriplegia, and terminal stage cancer
  • My disease would be less common – I might not even have developed it – if we had the political will to eliminate poverty and abuse and other such negative “social determinants of health.”
  • Properly funded health care would ensure I received proper disease and pain management, saving me time, money, and suffering. I wouldn’t waste hours every week on insurance paperwork and scheduling with doctors, commuting and waiting at appointments, coordinating my medical care and researching treatments. I would have access to specialists for my disease. My medications would be covered along with physiotherapy and massage. I’d have funded access to therapy to deal with pain that cannot be treated.
  • My PhD wouldn’t have such a short time limit on medical leaves. I wouldn’t lose my income when I am too sick to work. The number of hours I’m able to work wouldn’t determine whether or not I’m allowed to participate in science and research.
  • My ability to financially support myself wouldn’t be tied to the number of hours I’m able to work or widgets I’m able to produce.
  • My immigration status wouldn’t be dependent on my relationship status.
  • I wouldn’t be financially dependent on my partner because I could receive disability benefits while in a relationship with someone who had income. Or I would just get paid for working on my PhD.
  • Disability support would be enough to live on instead of less than the median rent and I’d be eligible for it regardless of my work history and immigration status.
  • I wouldn’t have to rely on friends and family when I’m too sick to care for myself, making it impossible or difficult for me to move or travel – I’d receive funding to employ people (or there would be government aid workers) to help me cook and clean and go about my daily activities.

When I stopped writing narratives that recapitulated ideas about “hard work” and gumption and began talking about structural challenges, about integrating dismantling those structures into my work (or at least getting support to deal with them), I stopped getting funding.

And it didn’t just hurt my funding – my relationship with colleagues has suffered as my attitude has shifted. They like to say things like “you’re so brave” or “it’s so great you always have such a positive attitude” – but when it gets inconvenient or slows me down, if I ask for help advocating for accommodations, or get frustrated with the endless structural barriers my university throws up, they disappear or make excuses or defend those barriers. If I let my good-disabled-person facade drop and express anything but unrelenting cheerfulness, they start pushing me towards the door. It’s not everyone of course, but it’s enough, and it’s people with power, so it matters.

Being “successful” in academia when I’ve faced discrimination and structural barriers has meant parroting oppressive beliefs and mythologies, and I can’t do it any more.

Advertisements

Picking the Wrong Place

It’s me again, your favorite shouty princess. Or you know, the thing that shouts back when you shout into the void on the internet. Regardless, I’m here to talk to you today about a very sore topic: how to figure out that you’ve picked the wrong place for yourself. I am going to focus on graduate school because I’m a grad student, but I hope this will be pretty uniform across life history stages.

To preface this, I started graduate school with really high hopes. I thought from how I remembered my interview process with my department at (insert big R1), that things would be okay. I was sure that graduate school courses would be rigorous, that the literature would envelop me in new ideas, and that my project-presented to me as already on solid ground, with the only thing needed was a willing pair of hands-would proceed smoothly.

Instead, I have an advisor who volunteers me to present places without telling me, who I constantly fight with, and who tells me that I am not fulfilling my job as a student. Continue reading

How to Survive in Academia

Hello all,

I’ve been casually strolling through my first semester in grad school, and I think I’ve found a few surefire ways to survive academia.

  1. Profess no values. Obviously, I don’t mean profess NO values. I just mean that the person you are in the office with students must be someone completely different from the you who befriends certain students* from the person you are in a classroom or in a departmental meeting. If no one in power can pinpoint who you really are in a negative way, then you can never be held accountable.
  2. Become the king/queen/nonbinary overarching despot of networking. The good thing about having literally unclockable values is that it makes you ripe for becoming one of the networking elite. It doesn’t even necessarily matter if the schmoozing makes sense within the department–just entrench yourself so deeply within the departmental psyche that you’re on everyone’s lips and thus no one can get rid of you. Even if you do something wrong, like argue in bad faith or something.
  3. Continuously play 4 dimensional chess, with everyone. This one is related to 1&2. Basically, don’t ever let the opportunity for an interaction go by–cause if you’re slick enough to break into academia, you’ll also be maximizing every interaction you do have to your benefit. If you stay ahead of the competition or latest departmental politic, you’ll be out of the reach of accountability while also cementing your reputation in the department. Who is going to check you when you’ve already perfectly manicured every situation since day 1?
  4. Subscribe to the fractal theory of relationships. What I mean by this is: be double minded, if not double hearted. Academia doesn’t care about your Deeply Held Morals–it cares solely about your ability to churn out intellectual paraphernalia that your university itself didn’t have to pay for. This will put you in the tricky position of knowing you need to performatively help those beneath you, but without actually changing the status quo in any functional way. Separate your relationships into  non-overlapping spheres to prevent people below you from colluding with those above you. This way, you can LOOK like you’re doing the most and the rumors of your allyship will generate social capital for you; when really you are just buying into majoritarianism at your power level and higher. Do the most to protect your working, high-return relationships; do the least in all others.

In case it was lost on you, I am clearly being caustically sarcastic. Continue reading

Labors in and on the academy

Happy belated Labor Day to our US readers. Hope everyone took (or takes) a minute to learn the history of Labor Day in the US.

Today, the day after, I’m specifically thinking about the labor of “diversity work.”  Who is doing it? Who ISN’T?

Why does it matter? As TSW author dualitea recently wrote, there appears to be a discrepancy in majority identities and who shows up to do the learning and labor of evidence-based inclusion.

Academia is seemingly these days always talking about diversity. But is it working? Who is doing the working? The work that institutions are doing so far may not be working. A new NBER working paper  indicates that hiring ‘chief diversity officers’ is not significantly correlated with increased hiring of non-white faculty across 462 universities.

So I’d like to suggest some homework for scholars in our reader community who, like me, identify as white – go read On Being Included: On Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) by Dr. Sara Ahmed.

As she herself says of the book, “we need to work on the university when we work at the university.”

This is not labor that should be asked of marginalized faculty, who are already shouldering more unpaid and undervalued labors in the academy.

As TSW author Acclimatrix recently also wrote, there are many kinds of labors in the academy.  One way to be a respectful, kind colleague if you’re a white scholar in the academy is to take on some of the labor of working ON academia while working IN academia.

Performative allyship isn’t what I need from you, white men.

Hi all, your favorite sunflower is here with a quick reminder: performative allyship is not what we need from you. I am mostly directing this at white men in academia, because in my experience a lot of y’all are into allyship, just not principally because it is a good thing to do. What you want is the cookies associated with good allyship: namely, that it looks really good in your tenure packet and on grants when you serve on committees or perform other soft-skill heavy community actions on behalf of the university, for the sake of “diversity”. Additionally, a lot of you use performative allyship as a honeypot to attract underrepresented students, regardless of whether or not you are actually capable of mentoring these students. Unfortunately, underrepresented minorities in the sciences are not bakeries and our lives don’t exist to dispense you ego cookies–we exist regardless of whether or not it dawns on you that service towards URMs is good for your pretenure review packet. Continue reading

survival and activism in academia

Hi all, it’s your favorite sunflowering baddie, and I’m here to quickly let y’all know that activism and survival in academia are not mutually exclusive. It is not necessary to pick one over the other, and the fact that a lot of (old, white, male) folks in academia are insisting that you do so should tell you all you need to know.

I’m talking about this right now, in brief, because of a conversation I had this morning with my advisor about whether or not my significant branding within the institutions I participate in dilutes my science. My advisor argued that I needed to maybe begin toning it down, because what I needed right now is science publications and not Internet notoriety for having loud opinions.

To me, this conversation is wild because the entire reason I had enough clout in the ecological community as a whole to even get into graduate school was because my activism gave me the voice and space I needed to be able to do science. As a first-year student at a PWI, I needed not only to speak up to advocate for myself and my ability to do science; but I also needed allies willing to hear me out and create a space with me. This was the only way I could craft my eventual science persona as a biogeochemist, and the fact that I do advocate for justice in STEM shouldn’t detract from my actual scientific work. Think about it: for what other extracurricular activity could you be shamed for in this way? No one says that someone’s knitting habit detracts from their ability to be an amazing bird ecologist; so why does my social justice activism define my ability to use a thermal conversion elemental analyzer and write about it?

In truth, the reason white women and POC (especially qtWOC) get flak for their activism is because it makes the gatekeepers of power uncomfortable. If we are constantly clamoring for change while tossing around additional weight of our science, it throws into disarray a lot of the dogma that white academia has clung to for so long–namely, that science is an apolitical meritocracy. If URMs point out that our strength in the sciences is in spite of the machinations of an academia made for white men, it forces those white men to reconsider their existence in the system. This is uncomfortable, and it should be. White men have never needed to fight for their humanity in a system meant to exclude them; the idea that they’ve gotten along not just because of their science (stellar or not) but because of a system functionally built to value them (the person) is scary. Which, welcome to the world of URMs–where we constantly juggle the micro and macroaggressions of the people around us just to be able to do the science that should be buying us a seat at the table.

Believe you me, there is nothing I would’ve liked better for me to only talk about my love of carbon cycling and the root-soil interface. I wish every day that I was in a position where my academic life functioned only as a vehicle for my science. Unfortunately, my existence as a queer first gen Latinx means my entire existence in academia is mediated through the intersections of my race, orientation, and class status. Academia does not exist in a vacuum: and is just as affected by the society it exists within as academia affects the society it is part of. The current way academia is run, I have no choice but to to amazing science but also incredible amounts of activism. It the only way I survived to this point. For a lot of URM’s, there comes a point in our lives where simply staying silent endangers us more than making noise does. I lived a lot of my undergraduate years trying to sit silently by, eating the injustices done to me by white academics who constantly discounted my science and my mind because of my ethnicity and gender presentation. All it did was leave me at the end of a jetty at a Famous Biological Lab, debating whether or not I should just leave science or leave this world entirely.

In the end, I am still here in academia because I spoke up: I spoke up about my science, and I spoke up about the injustices done to people of color who just wanted to do science. Through both sets of being active, I was able to find the people I now call my mentors and friends; and the people who ended up writing my letters of rec to get me into graduate school. The day that academia lets URM’s thrive without the constant slam of micro|macro|aggressions and harassment, the day that kids who look like me don’t have to buy their humanity by overworking themselves or hyperactivism; on that day where students of color can go into academia with the same expectations placed on them (and same benefits given to them) as their white peers,

On that day, I will finally shut up about social justice and do nothing but run the thermal combustion elemental analyzer and write about the soil-root interface.

Until then,

-sunflowerqueen

What do students really get out of REU’s?

Hello. I’m a freshly pressed Bachelor’s in A Hard Science and I’m new here to Tenure, She Wrote. I’m here to provide some fresh perspective from the smol side of academia–namely, how my experiences in undergrad have shown me what we need to change in Everyday Academia.

I’m here to share some stories about everyone’s favorite Thing That Looks CV Impressive–the REU.

 

REU’s (Research Experience for Undergrads) are typically touted as these absolutely amazing internships–the Rolls Royces of summer research. Us students supposedly get good (for students) salary, amazing mentorship, and the chance to come into our own as researchers by doing our own projects away from a home institution.

As someone who has been through two REU’s and an international exchange, let me tell you how much that isn’t true. Continue reading