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.

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Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue

“You’re such a productive academic mama! I didn’t do anything the first 4 months after my kid was born.”

Reading this recently in my inbox was unsettling. It was in reference to the fact that I was writing and replying to emails, with an infant at home.  What the sender didn’t, doesn’t, understand is that I don’t feel like I have much of a choice.  As an early career academic trying to figure out The Next Steps (AKA someone hire / fund me please!), there are a round of grant + fellowship deadlines this fall that won’t come up again for at least another year. And by then I won’t be eligible for at least one of them. In other words, external forces just don’t care what else I have going on. Their deadlines are not negotiable.

To some extent, I get it. I really do. I’ve ended up backing out of or turning down several things this fall that understandably are time-sensitive and involve large groups of other people- conferences, workshops. Deadlines and set time-frames help organize these groups and keep everyone on task. And these opportunities are important, but I just couldn’t make them work this fall.* One workshop required that I teach a module to peers on a pre-determined schedule, which I couldn’t commit to [with an infant nursing on demand who isn’t taking a bottle]. One conference was willing to let me present remotely/electronically, but said I had to commit to being available to answer questions live [again, I didn’t think that was a realistic option personally].

But I truly do not believe that this kind of inflexibility needs to be true for all academic opportunities. I feel especially strong about this when it comes to grant deadlines.  Continue reading

Valuing chronically ill graduate students

nsf_disability_removal

Many states issue “special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked.” Working under these rules, a disabled person can expect to make less than $4/hour. Some people think paying disabled people less is a good thing, as shown by this response when Maryland ended sub-minimum wages for disabled people:

If a worker is less productive, should they be paid less? This is not an abstract question for me.

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How to Publish Without Institutional Support

My institution defines me as a teacher. I knew this when I accepted a job teaching a 5-5 load a community college. Publication is not a part of my tenure review process, but teaching evaluations are, and I take part in an elaborate observation of my classes each year. The thing is, I am trained as a researcher and I define myself as a scholar, which to me means equal parts research, writing, and instruction. I was one of those people in graduate school who couldn’t wait to start my dissertation. Even as I have come to see myself as more of a teacher and found real meaning in working with my students, I feel a need to go beyond the classroom, to try and solve the systemic problems I see in my institution and community colleges more generally through inquiry and writing. This post is a look at my ongoing struggle to make space for the part of myself that is a writer in a teaching-focused job. Continue reading

From R1 to CC: 3 Things I Wish I Had Known About Community College Careers

As of August 1, I am a gainfully employed Humanities PhD. There were many times in my 3-year job search when I doubted I could ever say those words, so I am thrilled to write my first post from a position of relative career stability. My graduate training, however, had little to do with the job I got, so I wanted to write on what I wish I had known while pursuing the disappearing career of English Literature Professor.

Just a few days ago, I was talking with an Art Historian at a nearby university and he was horrified that I had “given up” on the research career I set out to find. He kindly (and somewhat condescendingly) offered to look over my cover letter and CV. I did not tell him that my job materials have been vetted by top scholars in my field; that my job materials got me interviews at two ivy league schools and campus visits at two state research universities; or that my job materials include four publications in top journals. I merely told him no thank you, I am happy where I have landed. So this post is for that well-meaning professor and for those PhD students who think a Community College job will not honor their substantial talents and ambitions. Continue reading

No access to travel funding: does this make cent$?

As a later-stage graduate student, I’ve been trying to make sure that I attend a few conferences per year. There are lots of reasons to go to conferences, some of which we’ve discussed here before, including meeting people who do similar work, becoming inspired by others’ work, learning about new ideas in your field, networking for future job opportunities/grant collaborators, and more.

But after coming back from a conference earlier this summer, I’ve been thinking about the costs. Not the direct costs per se, although there are great reads written by others on the high price of attending conferences these days. That’s not even considering the carbon footprint of academics jetsetting all over the planet. No, rather I’ve been thinking about how much graduate students in my lab group pay to attend conferences, while the PI pays nothing. Continue reading

Use your Academic an Professional Societies as Advocacy Machines

In which @Scitrigrrl begs for your help to generate a list of questions about advocacy to ask candidates seeking election for Professional-society positions.

[Disclaimer: I’m focusing on Society for Neuroscience here because that is the organization with elections going on right now. But this is broadly true for all of our major academic professional societies.]

Advocacy is one of the main missions of almost all Academic and Professional societies – not just the sciences  (American Historical Association has News and Advocacy as it’s first link on the menu bar; Modern Language Association has advocacy right there under Resources; Association for Psychological Science includes it front and center in its missions statement…I could go on). Right now when we think of advocacy we think about lobbying for support from congress, but we should be thinking more broadly than that. Workforce issues, public policies, public education about research and research ethics, supporting and yes, advocating for underrepresented groups in the field, I could go on.

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