Birthing a Degree and a Baby… How my identity impacts my life experiences in similar ways

Intersectionality has become a hot topic in the last few years. At its core it gives life to the nuance of navigating multiple marginalized identities. As a black woman, I understand that often I will deal with the impact of both racism and sexism. I know I’m likely to in just about every aspect of life in the U.S. and there is plenty of data to back this up. But for some reason, in my mind, that never extended to pregnancy and labor; despite my experiences with doctors my entire life. So, when stories about black mothers and infants having an abysmally high mortality rate in U.S. started coming out around when I became pregnant, I felt blindsided and anxious.  I spent the majority of my pregnancy reading about how my baby and I were more likely to die and/or be mistreated during labor. Now desperate for a low intervention birth, I went into the hospital to have my child on edge.

I spent the majority of my time at the hospital on pins and needles. The dismal numbers on black maternity outcomes running in the back of mind pushing, no demanding me to strike a balance between arguing over stupid hospital policies (That I’m positive contributed to my stalled labor and ultimately my unplanned C-section) and not pissing off the nursing staff too much to where it impacted my care. I knew they were likely to carry biases already and I wanted my child to enter this world in as safe a situation as possible. The consequences of this decisions to placate the nursing staff to ensure mine and my child’s survival lead me to be a much less vocal advocate for myself than I am in daily life. I accepted some policies and procedure despite all the research I had done that indicated they were not the best for having a natural, low intervention child birth as a bargaining chip for our lives. Any and all confidence and knowledge I had in respect to evidence-based birth was replaced with a primal fear and desire to survive.

While I didn’t see it in the moment, quiet reflection has made me realize that my experience in the hospital was incredibly similar to my experiences in my PhD program. I spent so much time while obtaining my degree shrinking myself in order to ensure that I graduated. I did not advocate for myself as much as I should have because I was afraid of pushing my advisors to write me off or push me out of the program. While they didn’t have the power to influence whether I live or die in the physical sense, ever dependent on that “Good” recommendation letter, they did (and still do somewhat) have control over the life of my career. While giving birth to my dissertation and ultimately my degree, I swallowed microaggressions, suffered from isolation, incivility and treatment akin to neglect for nearly 5 years in the name of survival because the power differential was too great.  The consequences of being too loud, too pushy and too angry could have had an infinite impact on my life going forward. I felt cornered, trapped. At one point I went to my department and demanded to be mastered out of the program because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I saw the effects of this play out in my health both mentally and physically. I would argue that interactions with my Ph.D. advisor to this day bring me as much and maybe more anxiety than I felt while I was in the hospital being prepped for surgery. How can interaction with someone who was/is supposed to help and guide me for a large portion of my career make me MORE anxious than being cut open on an operating table? Why am I essentially stuck interacting with and depending on this person for the next 5-10 years of my life on top of the 5 that have already passed?

I survived my Ph.D. on what little mentorship I could find outside of the lab, my friendships with a few people in my department, the most magnificent group of black women friends I could ask for and two mantras: “Nothing lasts forever” and “No one was going take the degree away from me”. I survived labor with the support of my husband, my mother, a great OB and two mantras: “Nothing lasts forever” and “Your baby is waiting for you.”

I made it out of grad school with my Ph.D. just like I made it out of the hospital with my adorable, healthy baby. So, I know that I am fortunate, blessed even. I just wish that the birth of both my dissertation and my baby,  which are difficult in and of themselves, did not require bearing the additional weight of surviving while black and female.

Advertisements

#MeTooSTEM and what you shouldn’t say to students

Hi all, its me again with a fresh new beef to toss onto the grill. This one requires some context.

Lately, #MeToo,  the movement started over a decade ago by Tarana Burke, has been absorbed into academic discourse. In the sciences, this has manifested into #MeTooSTEM and #MeTooPhD–with very vocal femmes and men in science taking to Twitter and other venues to throw their voices into the fray. Much of the discourse revolves around whether men who have been accused and found guilty of sexual harassment should lose funding or be barred from receiving funding from agencies like the NSF and NIH.  There is also the larger practice now of broadcasting the whisper network–where noted Twitter personalities post the collected accusations and investigations of predators in STEM. For an example, on Twitter, Jonathan Eisen posted a thread of all the accusations and investigations against theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss in response to Krauss’s announcement of “retirement” from ASU.  There is also the list by @GeoEdResearch which compiles data on all known harassers in STEM from publicly available data.

 

While I was initially heartened by these conversations in the digital space, I am now shocked by the cadence in which male professors talk about female students. Whenever #MeTooSTEM comes out around (male) faculty, I get 2 responses. The first is to turn #MeToo into a misogynistic joke that revolves around the idea that men in general should avoid hanging out with women to avoid giving said women fodder for an accusation. It’s a joke that often comes from white “ally” men in private with me, because they think they’ve earned the right to be problematic through their public advocacy (or personal connection).

The second reaction I get from men is that they need to be wary of women of all times, because a single accusation in the current era will destroy their careers–even if that accusation is proved to be false. Don’t get it twisted and think some troglodyte born in 1950 said this to me; instead, it was a junior faculty usually labelled as a “progressive” who said this in response to a question about how male faculty  should behave in these “changing times”.

 

Hearing a faculty member say this to me was devastating, because it proved to me that if anything, even supposedly progressive faculty believe that #MeToo is something aimed or able to hurt men; and not as a tool for social justice and progress. The idea that women have enough power to destroy the careers of men with false accusations is wildly out of tune with current realities of the power dynamics between men and women, both in society and in academia.  #MeTooSTEM is only scary to (certain) men because they’re never actually taken the time to actually interrogate which behaviors they’ve gotten away with because of the patriarchal underpinnings of society, and which ones are actually accepted by the people around them. Trust me, if multiple allegations against Florian Jaeger did not take him down and led to other faculty leaving in protest, then a false accusation against white men in academia is even less likely to ruin any man’s career.

The truth of the matter is that these reactions to #MeTooSTEM are rooted in misogynistic views held about women, their bodies, and the role of women and femme-coded people in society at large. If we protest harassment and the men who perpetrate it, we are shrews and stuck up b*tches looking to ruin the career of men who don’t deserve to have their “genius” derailed. If we stay quiet, and take the abuse or run from it, we get blamed for the damage done to our careers because we didn’t endanger ourselves by coming forward. Being a women in STEM is playing the ultimate game of 4D chess, with the advance knowledge that a single wrong move could end our careers.

Somehow, despite the fact that men in STEM have overwhelmingly gotten away with predatory behavior and harassment, it’s still women who have to deal with and work against every bit of fallout from it. Truthfully, if you are a man in STEM who sincerely believes that  female students-especially ones in your lab-are a potential liability for you, then you shouldn’t have female students, period. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be in any role where you have to advise anyone within a hierarchical power structure, because these kinds of beliefs and behaviors show that you are critically incapable of understanding power structures and how to participate within them without hurting other people.

If we are going to actually stop the rampant sexual harassment and predatory behavior that permeates academia, then men need to start getting serious about interrogating the power structures that they dominate and their own maneuvering through social spheres. This starts by not giving into misogynistic fears about women and our motivations, and also by taking accountability for the times that boundaries are overstepped. Things are changing, the train towards equity is moving; and if you don’t want to get to a place where women are free to participate in academia without having to fight for survival everyday, then leave.

signing off,

one of those stuck up b*tches 

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 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.

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