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

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.

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

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

How Age Can Pave the Road to Tenure

There are lots of articles about how older women feel invisible and how ageism affects women in the workplace.

My story is about how age and experience has helped me in my road to Full professor.

I entered graduate school more than a decade after I finished undergraduate school. I found a graduate program that was willing to take a chance on me, even though my undergraduate grades were only reasonable and I had not taken some of the standard courses or exams you might expect for my field. The program had a good number of women in it, and the department was actively recruiting women graduate students and faculty. They told me that they often prefer “older students” because they tend to be more focused and mature.

Once I arrived, I did see some of my graduate student friends struggling with the question of “why am I here?” and “did I just come to grad school because it was the next/obvious/easy step after undergrad?” I never really struggled with these issues.  I was very focused and worked as hard as I could to get out in a reasonable amount of time.  In the end, I finished my MS and PhD in about half the (tremendous amount of) time I had allotted myself.

Recently I have been promoted to full professor relatively few years. 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.

Continue reading