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Conference meet-ups 2020

This project got off the ground almost entirely by the will of Pierce Salguero who organized a meet-up of like-minded friends and colleagues at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego this past fall. If this project is going to have any impact, we believe it needs to be sustained by real-life connections and meet-ups. Annual and regional conferences are both where we are most likely to congregate and institutions or communities in need of humane interventions.

To help foster real-life connections, below is a list of humanities-based or humanities-adjacent conferences happening in 2020. We’d like to encourage folks attending these conferences to organize a #humanehumanities meet-up. We’ll help amplify the meet-up via our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and if you’re so inclined, you can even take over the Twitter account during the conference to further the conversation.

The below list is by no means comprehensive! Academia being what it is, we tend to specialize into our too-often siloed disciplines. One of our hopes in this project is to make new connections across disciplines, so please contribute to this list by adding whatever annual or regional conference you’re attending or organizations that have been overlooked. I’ll continually update this page, as we move through the year.

Feel free to reach out to myself or Pierce if you’re willing or able to organize a meet-up and want some support from our end (or tell us if you’re already doing it!). Please use the comments to make suggestions on how to organize an effective meet-up or if you have questions about what that might look like.

Here’s to a more humane 2020!

2020 Conferences:

  • American Historical Association (AHA), January 3-6, New York (sorry this post is so late! We’ll do better next year!)
  • American Political Science Association (APSA), January 8-9, Albuquerque.
  • Modern Language Association (MLA), January 9-12, Seattle.
  • Association for Asian Studies (AAS), March 19-22, Boston. Meet-up organizer: Azalia P. Muchransyah (azaliapr@buffalo.edu)
  • American Philosophical Association (APA), 3 regional meetings in January, February, and April.
  • American Sociological Association (ASA), August 8-11, San Francisco.
  • American Anthropological Association (AAA), November 18-22, St. Louis.
  • American Academy of Religion (AAR) (held concurrently with the Society for Biblical Literature, SBL), November 21-24, Boston. Meet-up organizer: Scott Mitchell (scott@shin-ibs.edu)

Creating Accessible Courses: Five Strategies for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Suffice it to say that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to syllabus craft and course design when accounting for diversity. A working mother of two might have different needs than a young football player and no two wheelchair users are exactly alike. What can we do to proactively anticipate and reactively accommodate diversities in academia? In this blog post, I invite discussion of best practices for creating environments of equity and inclusion in higher education by analyzing five vectors of academic accessibility. While far from comprehensive, my analysis should be enough to spark conversation about some of the implicit and explicit assumptions regarding age, race, class, gender, ability, and other intersectional factors of identity that shape our pedagogical craft. As humane humanists (or aspirants thereof), I argue that it is our mission to recognize such assumptions and actively combat them through awareness raising activities and other kinds of deliberate teaching praxis. By doing so, we may facilitate intellectual exchange as well as personal and practical growth.

1) Accessibility and Diversity Statements

One way of demonstrating our commitment to diversity is to incorporate accessibility and diversity statements into our syllabi. Wording and placement of such statements is a key indicator of our intellectual priorities and should be taken seriously. While there is no singular “right” way to craft an accessibility and diversity statement, there are certainly things to avoid. 1) Do not banish your statement to the bottom of your syllabus next to penalties for plagiarism; 2) do not assume that you can address all kinds of diversity in one block of text (accessibility and diversity statements can permeate your entire syllabus!); and 3) do not speak to diversities as if they are problems to be mitigated via campus resources centers. Instead, adopt language that reflects your personal and institutional commitment to diversities and emphasize your willingness to work with students to ensure that their access needs are met in all aspects of course design. Toward that end, encourage students to attend your office hours or contact you in other ways.

2) Multiformat Everything

When developing course materials, consider how diverse students might interact with them. Print and digital copies of syllabi with varying text sizes are a start, but also explore web accessible versions as well as audio/video formats to reach the widest audience possible. Another important thing to keep in mind is that syllabi need not be completed before the start of our courses and can be shaped and modified to meet the individual needs and desires of students as we become aware of them. Toward that end, I would highly recommend the distribution of optional and confidential forms at the beginning of each course that allow, but do not require, students to share aspects of their identities that they find relevant to learning in their own terms. Such forms can be useful tools in structuring the space and contents of our courses to ensure they accord with student interest. By creating multiformat materials we can performatively demonstrate our commitment to diversity.

3) Privacy and Disclosure

It is important to recognize that many students are unaware of the existence of campus-based resources for accessibility and inclusion like Offices for Students with Disabilities and Counseling and Psychological Services. Building information about such resources into your syllabi can help students negotiate many of the challenges associated with higher education. Additionally, it can also help your students avoid being ‘outed’ about otherwise sensitive issues. Students who cannot fully access the space, content, and experience of your class due to diverse issues may be unwilling or unable to speak with you or their classmates for numerous reasons. Assuring them that the campus has confidential intermediaries and resources in place to assist them in negotiating such issues can put everyone at ease and create a welcoming environment.

4) Classroom Expectations

A fourth technique for fostering diversity via your course syllabi is to include a section on classroom expectations that subverts traditional norms of student behavior and comportment. Invite students to interrogate how they’ve been trained to act: being quiet, sitting still, facing forward, dressing and talking in certain ways, avoiding food and drink, and so on. Suggest that your students need not abide by such norms in your course or, at a minimum, that you are open to having a conversation about alternative modes of participation that might help them learn. On a related note, consider using ‘participation’ in all its forms as a metric of evaluation rather than compulsory attendance or other measures that might create difficulties for students with diversities: physical, psychological, cultural, economic, or otherwise. When arranging participatory learning projects, but sure to include a line saying that alternative arrangements may be available upon request and encourage students to actively seek you out.

5) Technical Accommodations

A final tip for syllabus craft is to include a section explaining why you allow for the use of computers and other assistive devices in your classroom (you do, right?). Such devices are critical to many students with disabilities and those who cannot afford to print out or purchase other kinds of course materials. By proactively allowing for their use and building them into your course plan as opposed to reactively permitting them after receiving an accommodations request, you can not only expand the scope of your course but create an inclusive atmosphere. Indeed, technology can be an essential component for ‘flipping the classroom’ and making the most of in-class learning opportunities by directly linking them up with out-of-class workflows. It is worth mentioning to your students that for all its generative potential, technology in used in different ways by different people. By calling attention to the fact that you are aware of such differences, you can diffuse stigma associated with technical illiteracy and other kinds of limitations.

The strategies that I have outlined above are a beginning and not an end to the conversation of accessibility in higher education. As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, there is no one-size-fits all solution to diversity as every person is unique. “Universal design” is not universal, “accessibility” is inaccessible, and “barrier-free” is barrier-full. Nevertheless, it is our mission to strive to be as inclusive as possible and create a more humane humanities.

Creating a More Humane Humanities Is Not a “Nice” Thing to Do

Early in my academic training, I was part of a group of women graduate students focusing on issues of white supremacy in our university. In retrospect, I must have been a major thorn in the sides of these strong women who were much more practiced and educated in social activism and structural change. One of the concerns I voiced, which was not well received, was that members needed to feel safe and foster a sense of trusting in each other’s good intentions. That sounds nice. It is nice. But it’s not kind.

Niceness means something like “pleasant” or “agreeable.” When I tell someone that they’re very perceptive for someone of their culture, I may think I’m being “nice.” When I step in when one colleague confronts another by saying they think they’re catering to the racial comfort of white students in the classroom, I might be “nice” by stepping in to say that everyone here is trying to do the right thing. When an adjunct tells me that a faculty member has been “mansplaining” her field to her, it would be “nice” of me to tell her that he’s not trying to be sexist, he’s just from another generation. I smile. I move the conversation toward the goal of everyone “just getting along” and being friendly to one another (i.e., the status quo).

Challenging structural racism, sexism, and neoliberalism in academia is not nice. It is rocking the boat, endangering our own and others’ privileges, and disrupting the status quo. And while it is based on our good intentions, it is not pleasant, comfortable, or agreeable. It means having difficult conversations that people will not want to have. It means being vulnerable to blowback and critique, to being subversive or even destructive to unjust systems, and to holding oneself and others accountable to each other for cultivating justice and fairness.

In the context of a more humane humanities, addressing structural inequity requires a courageous kindness, one that is generous and considers the well-being of those on the receiving end of unfairness, working to support their voices being heard, listening deeply, and being present and committed to doing better in the midst of turmoil and pain. A more humane humanities involves caring and building new structures, practices, and cultural norms that may involve giving something up in the service of being compassionate. It is solidarity with those who face injustice in the forms of inequity and cruelty, noting that those who take part, either unconsciously or explicitly, in these forms of harm also deserve compassion. That compassion takes the form of accountability, as meanness and unfairness are destructive to perpetrators as well.

My colleague Yi-Li Wu notes,

Humaneness makes me immediately think of the Confucian concept of ren (仁), sometimes translated as “humaneness.” It connotes the essence of being a moral and virtuous person…. It’s about striving to develop the insight to see clearly what is righteous, and having the strength to fight for and uphold righteousness even at great personal cost. It is rooted in the idea of the transformative power of the moral individual, whose goodness constitutes a force for the betterment of society, as inexorably as water runs downwards.

Justin Ritzinger adds that humaneness involves “the moral imagination 恕 to understand the needs of others.”

None of these goals are nice, but they are kind.

Toward a Repertoire of Academic Kindness

One of the things that we discussed at the initial meet-up for #humanehumanities some of us went to at the American Academy of Religion last month was trying to build a collection of “best practices” for supporting others in the field, particularly those who are more junior or precarious. I think all of us have things that we do or that others have done for us. It can be hard, though, to see all the opportunities for kindness when we are all always pressed for time, rushing from one thing to the next. Compiling a list helps us expand one another’s repertoires so we have more techniques ready at hand.

To get the ball rolling, one of the things that was very helpful to me and that I have tried to pay forward is sharing professional documents. There are many high-stakes pieces of writing in academia—personal statements, job letters, tenure statements—but we rarely get to see other examples of the genre until we’re on the other side of the process. Sharing our own documents with those who are trying to compose or review their own can provide useful models and demystify the process.

In my own career, I got stuck for a while on my book proposal. There was so much riding on it and it started to take on this intimidating stature in my mind. Finally, after a rough second-year review, I asked a tenured colleague if I could see his proposal for a book he had under contract. I read it and…and it wasn’t that big of a thing, no different in many ways than selling a project for a grant proposal. Still nervous but no longer intimidated, I knocked a proposal together and started sending it in.

Since then I’ve shared my book proposal with many people. If it seems relevant and helpful, I offer and pull out my phone to send the Dropbox link on the spot so I don’t forget. I’ve also made a point of offering to share all my tenure-review documents with junior faculty coming up behind me since a poorly framed document was one of the reasons for my rough second-year review. I try to present them not as a model but as a point of reference so they can see how someone else did it.

What are some of the ways that you try to support others in the profession or that others have supported you? Add to the repertoire of academic kindness in the comments below! Interested in volunteering for the #humanehumanities P2P support network? Email the author to be added!

A Pedagogy of Kindness

This post, written by Catherine Denial, first appeared on Hybrid Pedagogy under a CC BY-NC license.

In the past two years, when I’ve been asked to sum up my approach to pedagogy, I’ve said “kindness.”

I didn’t always think this way. My graduate education encouraged me to think of students as antagonists, always trying to get one over on their instructors. I was urged to be on the lookout for plagiarism, to be vigilant for cheaters, to assume that the students wouldn’t do the reading, and to expect to be treated as a cog in a consumerist machine by students who would challenge their grades on a whim. I was once advised by a senior graduate student to “be a bitch” on the first day of class so that my students never wanted that version of myself to show up again, advice that I dutifully repeated to several of the graduate students who came after me. I was a stickler for deadlines, and memorably once refused to excuse the absence of a student who was battling a burst pipe in his house when class was in session. I look back on that now and wince.

I gradually learned, through a great deal of trial and error, that this combative way of approaching teaching was counterproductive at best, destructive at worst. Students didn’t communicate with me easily, since many of them didn’t see the point. They knew (I realize now) that I approached them with suspicion, and so returned that sentiment in kind. It quickly became clear to me that I needed to build relationships, not defensively prevent them from forming, and that trust was a vital part of creating the circumstances under which learning could happen. There was no space for trust to grow in the learning spaces I’d been trying to create, and so I learned to ease up, to let go of rigid control I’d tried to impose upon the classroom, and to make room for the unpredictable and unexpected. I thought, twenty-three years into my teaching career, that I was doing a pretty good job. And then I went to the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute at the University of Mary Washington in the summer of 2017.

The entire Institute was predicated upon the concept of kindness. From the pronoun buttons available at the registration desk, to the probing questions of the session leaders, to the time people took, one-on-one, to talk about syllabi and assignments, there was an ethos of care running through the whole four days of my residency. I had signed up for the Intro track, and had expected to spend my time evaluating digital tools to bring into my classroom. I did do that, but first I was asked to think about why I needed those tools at all, whom they would serve, and how I would build in accommodations for students with disabilities. My fellow attendees and I were constantly asked to consider why we were doing things the way we were, and what subtextual messages we were sending to our students about who they were. I took a good long look at my syllabus, and realized I had communicated everything in it from a position of absolute authority. The language I used to describe the college’s Honor Code, for example, expressed the suspicion that everyone was going to commit some awful academic offense at some point, and my attendance policy made no room for the idea that my students were adults with complicated lives who would need to miss a class now and again.

Why? Why did I posit my students as passive novices who couldn’t contribute to their own learning? Why did I require students to jump through hoops to prove that they deserved an extension on a paper? Why did I dock points if my students missed three classes in a term? No one had ever asked me to defend my pedagogical choices before, and once they did, I found much of my pedagogy indefensible. I felt regret and no small amount of embarrassment. My teaching was undone by the presence of a question that was never articulated quite this directly but was everywhere around me:

Why not be kind?

And so I chose kindness as my pedagogical practice. Telling people this has often elicited a baffled response. Kindness is something most of us aspire toward as people, but not something we necessarily think of as central to teaching. In part this is an effect of the pressures that are brought to bear on our classrooms from outside them, symptomatic of a nationwide clamoring (in some circles, at least) for standardization, testing, and rote assessment. Instead of kindness, we’re more likely to hear about standards and rigor. (The national professional organization to which I belong says that “good teaching entails accuracy and rigor,” but never mentions compassion, for example.) And when we are urged to be kind within an educational setting, it’s too often to make up for a lack of institutional support for students and faculty in need, asking a particular service of women and non-binary individuals of all races, and men of color. Kindness can be a band aid we’re urged to plaster over deep fissures in our institutions, wielded as a weapon instead of as a balm. And too often people confuse kindness with simply “being nice.”

But, to me, kindness as pedagogical practice is not about sacrificing myself, or about taking on more emotional labor. It has simplified my teaching, not complicated it, and it’s not about niceness. Direct, honest conversations, for instance, are often tough, not nice. But the kindness offered by honesty challenges both myself and my students to grow.  As bell hooks memorably wrote in Teaching to Transgress, “there can be, and usually is, some degree of pain involved in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing and learning new approaches.”

Yet in practice, I’ve found that kindness as pedagogical practice distills down to two simple things: believing people, and believing in people.

When a student comes to me to say that their grandparent died, I believe them. When they email me to say they have the flu, I believe them. When they tell me they didn’t have time to read, I believe them. When they tell me their printer failed, I believe them.

There’s an obvious chance that I could be taken advantage of in this scenario, that someone could straight-up lie and get away with it. But I’ve learned that I would rather take that risk than make life more difficult for my students struggling with grief and illness, or even an over-packed schedule or faulty electronics. It costs me nothing to be kind. My students have not, en masse, started refusing to meet deadlines, but the students who are struggling have had time to finish their work. My students have not, en masse, started skipping class, but they’re not required to undergo the invasive act of telling me personal details about their lives when they can’t show up. My students have not, en masse, started doubting my abilities or my expertise, but they have stepped forward to direct their own education in meaningful and exciting ways that I could not have thought of.

That’s believing students. But what about believing in students?

Believing in students means seeing them as collaborators — believing they have valuable contributions to make to the way in which syllabi, assignments, and assessments are designed, and life experiences that should be respected in the classroom.

In Fall 2017, I asked both classes to give me questions about the topics we’d be covering — American Indian history in one class, and the history of gender and sexuality in the U.S. in the other. I was then able to craft a syllabus for each class that wove together my own sense of important historical context together with answers to the questions they had posed. The students were offered a sense of ownership in the course, and I was alerted to things I might not otherwise have considered — basic terminology around which there was confusion, for example, or, say, a strong interest in understanding changing concepts of masculinity over time.

I drew on the wisdom of teachers who had gone into this ‘kind space’ before me, and made significant changes to the way in which I graded work in those classes. Rather than distributing a finished list of grade requirements, I shared some suggestions, and refined those with my students’ input until we’d reached a consensus about meaningful assessment. When my students turned in a paper, they also filled out a self-evaluation of their work that asked them what they’d do differently next time, how pleased they were with what they produced, and what they learned about themselves. These adjustments are possible in any class, be it one like mine, with twenty-five students, or a much larger lecture course at a different kind of institution. Both approaches give students greater ownership over their grade and the way that it’s awarded; grading becomes, to whatever degree possible, a collaborative venture. In smaller classes it’s possible to go further; my students and I sat together and talked over the answers on their self-evaluation, and I asked my students to give themselves a grade. Together, we entered into a conversation about why that grade felt right to them, and why it did or didn’t feel right to me, before reaching a consensus on what grade they’d earned.

I’ve also begun to think of my classes in terms of universal design. For many years I taught with the idea that there was a well-established, academic norm that was fair and impartial, and my job was to make accommodations available for those students who had particular disabilities, or faced particular challenges in meeting that norm. I no longer believe in such a practice. My job, as I see it now, is to make my classroom accessible to everyone. I’ve begun the long work of redesigning my lessons and assignments so that everyone is a full participant, and no one needs ask for extra time or a note-taker, because those needs have already been addressed. Because I don’t believe students with disabilities should have to out themselves, I no longer ban laptops in my classroom, or have quizzes that some students have to take across the hall to get their necessary time-and-a-half. Instead I’ve experimented with take-home quizzes, options for students to record videos as well as write papers, and final project guidelines that allow students to create anything that will demonstrate to me what they’ve learned over the term. This, too, is about belief in my students, and believing that by designing my class to accommodate all types of learning I’m demonstrating something important about the ways in which we should be creating a more just world.

I feel more comfortable as a teacher now than I ever have. The subconscious sense that students were antagonists lingered inside me for a long time — long enough that it has been a marvel to teach these past two academic years and experience a teacher-student relationship without that default expectation. I was less stressed; I didn’t have reservations about walking into the classroom. My students rose up to meet every new challenge I presented to them, and vocally affirmed that they appreciated the new approach to grading. Crucially, they articulated that when I looked them in the eye and told them what they had done well in a paper, they believed me, whereas when the same info was written at the end of a paper, they didn’t. They saw it as pablum — something that I had to write before I delivered the bad news of what they could still work at (which they interpreted as “what I did wrong.”) I see that shift, from their exasperation and disappointment to them becoming partners in the assessment of their work, was emblematic of the fruits of a pedagogy of kindness. It was, and is, transformational for all involved.

A pedagogy of kindness asks us to apply compassion in every situation we can, and not to default to suspicion or anger. When suspicion or anger is our first response, a pedagogy of kindness asks us to step back and do the reflective work of asking why we’re reacting in that manner and what other instances of disappointment or mistrust are coming to bear on a particular moment in a particular student-teacher interaction. This can transform the student-teacher relationship — but it’s not only on an individual-to-individual level that it can alter our working world. To extend kindness means recognizing that our students possess innate humanity, which directly undermines the transactional educational model to which too many of our institutions lean, if not cleave. Transactional models of education identify students as consumers and teachers as retail workers who must please their customers (an inhumane model for retail sales as well as the world of learning). Administrators become managers in this model, looking for cents they can save rather than people they can support. This drains the entire system of its humanity, and leads to decisions at every level where the personhood of a student, teacher, or administrator is diminished.

To value and practice kindness is to resist such models. Even where institutions are leaning away from investment in personhood in favor of hedge funds, we as teachers have the ability to insist that individuals matter. We have the means to hold a line, to see the student without shelter — or food, or safety, or a laptop, or an internet connection, or health, or confidence, or a support network — as someone who matters exactly as they are and even because of the challenges they face. We can refuse to dehumanize our students and presume an adversarial stance. We can prioritize kindness.

Storytelling ethnography as engaged pedagogy for a diverse student body

This post first appeared on Medium.com on Jun 3, 2019.

Since 2015, students in my “Buddhism in the West” class have been developing a website called the Jivaka Project. The project has involved dozens of students doing participant-observation ethnography at over 40 Buddhist temples in the Greater Philadelphia area. Student researchers have conducted hundreds of interviews and collected a trove of multimedia content about Buddhist material culture, ritual practice, social events, community outreach, and many other aspects of Buddhism as a lived religion in the local context. Some of this material has now been put on the project website, geographically mapped, and made searchable by various categories, keywords, and tags.

Although the majority of my students are only in the class because it fulfills several mandatory General Education credits, the Jivaka Project has allowed me to make studying Buddhism highly relevant to them. Abington College is a small liberal arts campus within the Penn State public university system, which considers itself to be a laboratory for innovation in culturally responsive education. We have a strong social mission, and a socioeconomically diverse, minority-majority student body. Specifically, we are an AANAPISI, and Asian students make up 30% of our student body. For the most part, these students are either international students, or they come from recently immigrated families that predominantly live in Asian neighborhoods in and around Philadelphia. Typically, half of any given class of mine at Abington College is made up of students of Asian heritage

For students in my classroom who come from non-Asian backgrounds, the project has provided the opportunity to gain more intimate exposure to Philly’s multiethnic and multicultural diversity, as well as practical experience with intercultural communication. This is important for the ethical formation of future global citizens of the future, who we are helping to become knowledgeable of and empathetic toward all kinds of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic difference. However, due to the demographics of our college, research for this project has almost wholly been undertaken by small groups of students where at least one person — and, not infrequently, everyone in the group — identifies as belonging to the primary cultural-linguistic group at the temples being visited.

Many students who have contributed to the project are thus actually quite familiar with these kinds of spaces. Some even have had family members or acquaintances who regularly attend the very temples where they were doing ethnographic work. This project thus gives many students the opportunity to bring stories and experiences from their own communities into the classroom. These are contextualized by the study of the history of Asian immigration in the US, urban diversity and religious pluralism, and inequities in the healthcare system through our textbook and other course materials. In addition to briefly touching on the history and doctrine of Buddhism more generally, our class discussion centers around critical perspectives on immigration, race, gender, and cultural difference, and how Buddhist institutions have helped immigrants and refugees to navigate these challenges in Philadelphia and around the country.

Outside of the classroom, there is a lot of clear pedagogical value in participation in the project. The students learn a number of research and creative skills through their experiences visiting temples, interviewing, and producing multimedia materials. The project is inherently collaborative, both in the sense that they visit temples in small groups and also in the sense that this is an iterative project that builds from class to class and year to year. The work is also inherently interdisciplinary, involving elements of religious studies, history, anthropology, and journalism.

However, I am particularly excited about how this type of assignment is able to engage a diverse student body. Involving international students and recent immigrants from local non-white, non-English-speaking communities has given me the opportunity to reverse the usual deficit model approach to education. Too often, English language learners are treated as liabilities in the humanities classroom due to their non-fluent oral and written communication. In my class, however, these students play an indispensable role as cultural liaisons who facilitate cultural awareness, help their classmates to navigate the temple spaces, and even translate interview questions for their group. As they learn to embody the role of content experts, they come to be recognized as authorities by their classmates and begin to see their own biculturalism as an asset.

Another important pedagogical strategy is that the typical power dynamic between students and professor is flipped in this class. The professor, in this instance, is not there to explain “the Buddhist other” to the students from his position of privilege at the front of the classroom. Instead, both the students and the professor are building together our understanding of Buddhism, from the ground up. We learn together how a Cambodian temple in Center City helps address the collective trauma experienced by the community of refugees, and assists new arrivals to access the American healthcare system — not by reading about this in the abstract, but instead through student-generated materials that are locally-situated and relevant to their lives. There have been countless times where I have learned from my students, rather than the other way around.

Finally, and perhaps on a more personal note, teaching this class has given me — a scholar primarily trained as a historian of medieval China — the opportunity to teach a class that feels like an invigorating change of pace from my usual fare. With issues such as immigration, healthcare, and religion constantly in the news today, the class is exciting, fresh, and relevant to the issues of the current time.

Some Ugly Truths I Wish I Knew Before Going into a PhD Program… And 8 Tips for Surviving Them

This was first posted to Medium.com on Oct. 19, 2019.

Graduate school was for me, as I am sure it is for many, intellectually thrilling. It was a wonderful time of self-discovery and deep learning. I would do it all over again in a second. However, I also have to acknowledge that most of my cohort did not have the same experience. Of the students who were on campus attending classes at the same time as me, across two departments in a joint program, fully half of them did not complete the PhD.

In talking with colleagues who earned PhDs in the humanities from other similar institutions in the same era (ca. 2010), my program seems to have been somewhat more extreme than most, but not a complete outlier. On the whole, the consensus is that PhD programs seem to be intended to weed out rather than to support, to grind down rather than build up. The environment is often toxic; the pitfalls are many; the allies are few.

In the interests of being transparent with prospective grad students about what they are getting themselves into, I would like to share the ugly truths I wish I knew before I went to a PhD program, and a few tips I learned along the way that might help others to survive the ordeal:

1.) Many of my cohort-mates who dropped out of the program did so because they decided, on second thought, to pursue careers outside of academia. (They went into journalism, the non-profit sector, museums, etc.) I think one of the principal reasons that I was able to finish at all was the fact that I didn’t really see any viable options for my life other than being a professor. This feeling was more like a constant sense of dread rather than self-confidence, mind you, but it kept my eye on the goal and gave me the focus to get there. Take-home point: if you can think of anything else you could be doing with such enormous amounts of time, effort, and opportunity cost, you might consider saving yourself the trouble of learning the hard way, and just go do that instead.

2.) Most of my cohort who didn’t make it were younger than me. They headed into graduate school straight out of college, or took just a year off in-between. I, on the other hand, had spent 10 years traveling and living abroad, gaining work experience that had nothing to do with academics, reading extensively in the field I would wind up specializing in, and earning a part-time Masters Degree while starting my own business. By the time I decided to go into the PhD, I was crystal clear about both exactly what I wanted to study and exactly why I wanted to do so. I started day one with a clear plan, and every course I took and every seminar paper I wrote was directly related to forwarding that agenda. My point is that there are many other ways to “find yourself,” so why put yourself through the grueling and costly PhD process just to explore and discover your passion? Before you decide this is the path for you, I’d suggest you go get some experience out in the real world, away from school for several years. Only go into the program when your plans and motivations are absolutely clear

3.) To the left and right of me, I watched as cohort-mates’ careers were destroyed because of their advisors—including two close friends whose advisors or department chairs actively ignored them for years, and then pushed them out of the program for not being productive enough. My own advisor successfully shielded me from many potential harms along the way at some cost to herself, but this kind of advisor is a rare gem. If you do decide that grad school is right for you, what institution or department you are in and even what subject you study is less important than your relationship with your advisor. Before you enroll in a program, I recommend gathering information from others who came before you, and spending the time to build a personal relationship with your future advisor. Make sure you trust that they are as committed to seeing you finish successfully as you are.

4.) Twice during my three years on campus, administrative mistakes and departmental misinformation that were beyond my control caused problems with my funding, in one case delaying it for 3 months and in another cancelling it altogether for a semester. For someone with two young children at home, these were not minor matters. Fortunately, I had just enough money from a previous business venture to float my family during these ruptures. Don’t find yourself in the situation of choosing between finishing the program and your kids being able to eat. Line up emergency sources of financial support in case there’s a problem with the graduate stipend, and expect that there probably will be.

5.) Prepare yourself well for a huge onslaught of stress. It’s not just the work that will pile up—the endless to-do list and the constant pressure to always say “yes” to more tasks—but also the self-doubt and self-criticism. You will have to project strength and confidence every day, even while you are being eaten alive by “imposter syndrome.” The psychological fallout can be severe: several of my cohort-mates left the program because of mental illness or alcoholism. If you have any kind of personal issues, relationship issues, health issues, or anything else that is demanding your energy, I would advise you to strongly consider delaying your enrollment until those situations are resolved. If you don’t already have a repertoire of stress-management and positive psychology techniques, I’d suggest giving yourself a year to learn them before going into the program. Start a meditation practice, get into running and lifting weights, get a dog that needs daily walks outside, take control of your diet, and get more sleep. Try to ingrain these practices into your daily life now, and hopefully they will be sources of strength and resillience you can draw upon later.

6.) Even if it doesn’t literally take your life, the program will definitely try to take it figuratively. You’re going to be asked to devote 100% of your time and energy to your work—to ignore friendships, relationships, passions, hobbies, and everything else that makes you human. Your intensive training in critique will also likely turn you into an insufferable cynic who is unable to enjoy time with family or friends without “deconstructing the social constructs” of the occasion. While it will seem impossible to do so during your time in grad school, I think you must carve out boundaries and vigorously defend the time you need to feed your soul and maintain your humanity. For me it was time with my kids; for one friend of mine it was joining a roller derby team; for another it was playing in a band. Despite the pressures, you must not let pursing a PhD make you forget that you’re a whole person whose life revolves around more than just the critical theory readings and dealines of the week.

7.) To add to the self-doubt you’ll start heaping on yourself, you will also have to learn to receive cutting criticism from your teachers and advisors. Some subfields of the humanities are more collegial than others, but sooner or later everyone experiences competitiveness, backstabbing, vitriol, and pettiness, whether from cohort-mates, faculty, or people outside your department. Many of my cohort became demoralized by these exchanges, and retreated into hopelessness. In my experience, the best defense against despair is to surround yourself with supportive collaborators. I’d suggest starting a grad student writing group to share your work, or exchanging drafts with someone at a different school whose work is related to yours. Give each other feedback, share writing tips and resources, and provide a sounding board for each other. If your experience with these groups is like mine, you’ll find that the camaraderie you develop with these people will crystalize into fruitful long-term collaborations and close friendships. These will not only help you get through graduate school, but also will be rewarding in and of themselves for decades to come.

8.) Finally, please don’t put yourself into a toxic or unsustainable situation temporarily, telling yourself that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully you’ve already been given a reality check about the job market, and have realized that there are far fewer jobs than PhD graduates in every humanities field. For sure there are different levels of demoralization and pain you might experience after graduation depending on whether you land a job on the tenure track, the teaching track, or in the adjunct pool. But, honestly, the light at the end of the tunnel is dim for everyone. We’re all in more or less the same situation after graduation as we were in school: we’re all still treading water, trying to stay afloat in a flawed system that is trying to extract every last ounce of productivity out of us. (Of course it’s capitalism not academia that’s the culprit here, but our critical training makes us hyper-aware of how we’re being exploited every day, and creates even more resentment than usual!) The point is that if you sell out your wellbeing to get through grad school, thinking you’ll be able to make up for it later, you’re definitely setting yourself up for burnout.

These are my ideas, shared in the interests of helping prospective grad students to weigh your options and prepare yourself well for the rocky road ahead. As I mentioned at the outset, my own trajectory was relatively trouble-free, a happy and energizing time. But the carnage was real, and it’s unethical not to talk about it openly.

I’m interested in feedback from readers who are either in PhD programs or who are now on the faculty. What were your experiences like? What were the pitfalls? What tips would you give to those who are just starting out? Your comments are welcome below!

Let’s put more humanity in the humanities!

This was first posted to Medium.com on Jul. 5, 2019.

Academics live our lives searching out angles by which to critique and to challenge the status quo. So, perhaps it’s inevitable that instead of building communities of mutual care, we are constantly reenforcing habits of judgment, both of each other and of ourselves. Abusive relationships with mentors, toxic power dynamics in departments, and chronic anxiety such as imposter syndrome run rampant everywhere I look in our community. I wonder if the post-truth politics and anti-intellectual climate of the moment—when we’re taking more heat and are under more scrutiny than ever from outside the academy—might inspire us to find ways to actively support each other from the inside?

Of course, we still should be critical of one another’s scholarship, in the sense that we all want to keep pushing our collective thinking and understanding forward. But do we need to be so competitive on a person level? So angry or dismissive of each other in our rhetoric? Do we need to keep feeding the pride, entitlement, and abuses of power?

I think it’s a false dichotomy that more kindness means less rigor. My guess is that empowered, healthy scholars who were mentoring and supporting each other as a collective would likely be much more rigorous than a collection of competitive individualists who are at each others’ throats.

To build a more humane humanities in practice, I am starting by reconsidered the primary purpose of some of my scholarly activities, seeing them as opportunities to make compassionate interventions. I invite you to think about these as well:

  • What would it look like if my participation in conferences/social events were centered around building networks of solidarity and support for those coming behind me?
  • What would it look like if my campus service contributions were centered around healing rifts in my community and empowering those with fewer opportunities?
  • What would it look like if my teaching and practice of critical thinking were centered around building up society’s capacity for personal growth and empathy?
  • What would it look like if my editing/peer reviewing activities were centered around mentoring colleagues?

What are some other examples you can think of to reframe or reinvigorate our academic practice, and infuse it with more compassion? Let’s brainstorm together and build a better, more humane academic culture.