WHAT KIND OF ACADEMIC DO YOU WANT TO BE?

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of academic do I want to be?'” That was what my good friend, confidant, and unofficial work/life advisor Dr. Peguero said to me during a telephone conversation we had in 2016. I was in the home stretch toward  defending my dissertation, and was having a bit an existential crisis. I had already secured a tenure-track position in a teaching institution, but was stressing over a grant proposal I was trying to complete, as well as wrapping up revisions on two publications. I was also finalizing the paperwork for two college events I was organizing, as well as some other college service. 2016 turned out to be a super busy year, and 2017, as I was officially Dr. Leyro, had not slowed down.

Teaching, speaking engagements, writing, college service, grant proposals, trainings, and conducting a couple of research studies, I have been trying to do it all. Some of you might relate: once we become “Dr. So-and-So” the tenure-clock starts ticking, and the goal posts change. The hamster-wheel shifts several gears and it’s all about publishing, college service, and pedagogy. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am happy and love everything I do. But after a while fatigue sets in, you get super-tired from pushing yourself constantly and eventually all this will take its toll. This is particularly true for those of us who identify as “activist scholars,” or who try to engage in research that hopefully will impact public policy, or who have ambitions of achieving the highest echelons of the academic world – you might be all of the aforementioned or just one or two of the above. So how do you achieve all that you must (and want) to attain without burning out? How do you exercise “self-care” while at the same time maintain ambition? Is it possible?

But do we *have* to do it all? Can one be an educator at a primarily teaching institution (with a heavy teaching load) and still be respected as an academic?  Can one conduct studies without raising lots of grant money and still be respected as a researcher? Can one exist as a college professor at a teaching institution and still be respected as a scholar?

So…”What kind of academic do I want to be?”  When Dr. Peguero posed that question to me, he was pointing out that many of us try to do it all, but at the core, there is generally one facet of academia that attracts us more than the others. For some of us it’s publishing, for others it might be engaging in research, others are more activism focused, and are more engaged in college service. And what my friend/adviser/mentor was trying to get me to see is that it’s okay to lean toward one of the above than others. We have to embrace what we are good at and enjoy more and accept that in order to be happy and truly successful in academia, we must learn which is best for us. Because at the end of the day, you can’t do it all

Now, this is not to say that you cannot be a great educator with stellar college service and never publish or engage in research. It also does not mean that you cannot be a kick-ass professor who does lots of activist research that impacts public policy. Nor does it suggest that there is only *one* path to the highest levels of academic excellence. What it does mean, however, is that you cannot expect to spend months completing big-money competitive research grants (and get them), and simultaneously work on getting 4+ articles published every year and engage in activism and hold several speaking engagements a year and grade 150+ papers a semester – without burning out. And I’m not even calculating parenthood or romantic partnerships or other real-life realities into the equation! You might be able to pull it off for a while, but it’s just not sustainable. We are not machines, and no matter what your institution dictates, you cannot sacrifice your mental well-being for that coveted promotion. Because then we will be living in precarity (see this article on precarity).

At the end of the day, it’s about our mental well-being. I have emphasized in my previous posts the fact that PhD students experience high rates of mental and emotional breakdowns, as do professors. We have to push back on the hamster wheel and insist that we can be great academics and scholars and researchers without having to be superheroes.

I am fortunate to know some pretty amazing scholars and academics. I count several superstars as my friends – not just people who I have met at conferences, I’m referring to folks I have a personal connection with. And there is a similarity among all of them: each of them is a master as their craft – a focused one: they are expert researchers, or superb writers, or amazing educators. And because of their focus, they have also achieved success in other realms. Granted, I’m sure they went through their own reflective self-evaluative process and came to a decision of who they want to be. I know I am happy where I am at the moment, because where I teach I am allowed to be me: a scholar activist who gets to work with so many amazing inquiring minds. But I am still processing…doing lots of self-reflection and inward analysis as I try to find the right balance.

What about you? Can you relate? Are you finding the right balance? What kind of academic do you want to be?

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ROACH UNIVERSITY

In 2013 the top person at The Graduate Center (the institution that granted my Ph.D.) then-Chancellor Bill Kelly – called the institution a “roach motel.” He said this referring to how students checked in and never checked out of their Ph.D. programs (see article here). This statement is bad enough, but to put into context, New York City was barely clawing its way out of a bed bug epidemic. To put into further context, the creepy crawly critters are basically roommates for many people living in New York City. Growing up in the public housing projects in the Bronx, I shared space with many roaches. We had lots of roaches. So you can imagine my disgust and horror when I think back to when the Chancellor of the graduate school I was attending compared me to the very creatures I worked really hard to get away from. But whatever context you put it in, what he said was just plain fucked up.

And I remember students being outraged by Kelly’s characterization. There were several response articles condemning the statement, and he subsequently walked it back. But at the time, while I should’ve felt just as indignant, I was not. When Kelly said his terrible comment I was into my third year as a Ph.D. student in my program and by that time I had already been put thru the ringer. From fighting off criticisms of my work on immigration and deportation by conservative-leaning professors, to dealing with faculty neglect and research idea rejections, I was stomped on so much I might as well have been a roach.

And yet here I am, four years and a Ph.D. later, feeling the outrage I never felt back then. Now that I am able to reflect upon that time, I feel lots and lots of resentment. Because post-defense depression is real, the Imposter Syndrome is real. But those mental states aren’t a result of happenstance – they are the consequence of years and years of being told your work sucks, that you do not have the right to state an original thought but must come up with original research, all while being told that “this is the process,” a necessary one if you want your Ph.D. to mean anything. Some faculty members treat students the same as that frat boy who can’t wait to make the next pledge suffer what they did years before, forgetting the pain and anguish that process inflicts. They force students to become citation machines by making them read their own work or the work of their colleagues, and oftentimes use their labor without giving proper credit.

The tone-deaf nature of Kelly’s statement was not just offensive, it was also a deflection from the fact that it is graduate school – not the graduate student – that is the problem. Ph.D. programs are notorious for having a high attrition rate – not because the students are losers who are akin to roaches, but because graduate school puts them through a terrible hazing process that ends up breaking the will of many students, driving some to emotional and/or mental breakdowns (see an article in the Atlantic from last year about the destructive culture of Ph.D. programs here).

It’s no wonder that we experience the Imposter Syndrome. It’s no wonder that we suffer post-defense depression. It’s no wonder that so many of us consider ourselves a fraud, making the three letters after our name seem more insignificant than unbelievable. When the highest administrator of your institution characterizes the place as a roach motel and implicitly compares you to one of the most disgusting creatures on this planet, how can one possibly look at the doctorate degree and think, “I’ve accomplished something great?” At the end of the day, I still sometimes feel that the faculty in my program don’t take me seriously and will never consider see me as a true scholar or academic, and that feeling did come out of left field.

And just to clarify: not all faculty were exploitative and abusive. I consider myself fortunate to have formed a committee that was very supportive, and in my last year as a student I was part of a seminar program that was led by faculty who were incredibly supportive and it was that group that helped me find my voice. But these are connections I had to form myself: one of my committee members is a not in my program (not even in the state!) and the seminar is one that I sought and applied for on my own.

The thing about roaches, though: they outlast us all and will survive any impending apocalyptic end to this world. And just as my Ace Boom Dr. Stageman said, “we stuck it out through sheer force of will and stubbornness, a refusal to fail even though the powers that be wrote us off. We did it ourselves, and here we are still doing it ourselves, and probably we’ll be in the same damn situation ten years down the road. But we know what we’re made of.”

TRUTH!

So, as I reflect upon my student days, and contemplate my mental state post-defense, I have decided to use my memories of the brutal process of obtaining my Ph.D. as well as the condescending and incredibly disrespectful language used by my institution’s administrators as fuel to keep going – a big middle finger to those who hung so many of us out to dry. I will combat those feelings of worthlessness with the reality that at the end of the day, I did it. And I say to you all who are still students in your programs: you are not roaches, you are valuable, you belong in your program, and you will become a Ph.D. – PALANTE!

 

(* Note: This post is actually a week late – I post every other Tuesday. I don’t know how, but I totally miscalculated and missed a week! Apologies!)

(** Stay tuned! Next post will be our first Guest Blog!)

*Accidental* Académica?

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“You need to put ‘serendipity’ in there somewhere.” That’s what one of my friends told me when she read my blog announcement. When she saw that I was calling myself an “accidental” academic, she put on her coach hat and made clear: I am no accident: I worked for what I achieved and I am entitled to be called an academic, as is every one of the PhDs out there, no matter where they come from or what school they went to. The rigors of the doctorate are what make those letters so precious. And she’s 100% correct. And make no mistake: I am proud of my achievement and I certainly believe I earned and deserve it! So why did I choose a seemingly self-deprecating title?

The Accidental Académica refers to the bewilderment, anxiety, isolation, frustration, and overall disorientation that I feel as I adjust to being Dr. Leyro. Sometimes I feel as if I literally stumbled into academia. Because what I saw as an ideal for what I was working so hard for got stretched really thin along the long, dark tunnel I crawled through as a graduate student, and then changed completely at the other end, with new goal posts and standards. And if my informal conversations with colleagues and other folks I’ve met at meetings and conferences is any indication, my feelings are not unique. Hearing that others feel and have experienced the same is what led me to start this blog. I want this to be more than just a cathartic tool where I spill my guts on some online diary. I’m wondering: were we sold a bill of goods? Or perhaps, are these experiences related to the same institutional conditions many of the books we read and studied say exist outside of the University?

I have a feeling that the latter applies…

And speaking confusion: I’ve had conversations where people have told me they find it “icky” to use their credentials. Not that they are still tripping over being called Dr. – they are not referring to the urge that even I still feel to turn around and see who they’re talking to whenever they hear ‘Dr. [so and so].] No, I’m talking about people (many of them who are exercising their privilege) who say they think it’s tacky to use the initials “Ph.D.” or “Dr.”

And that confuses me. Because here we are, working so hard to achieve those three letters after our name, to engage in and conduct original research, to write a minimum 200-page document outlining and defending that study. And then you get those three letters, and you’re told that it’s tacky to use them?

Now, I’m not saying I want to go around introducing myself to everyone as, “Hi, I’m Shirley Leyro, Ph.D., please refer to me as Dr. Leyro.” And when I am introduced by anyone to others – even students – I always say my name is Shirley. But yes, I sign my emails with Shirley Leyro, Ph.D. And yes, I expect correspondence to me to use “Dr.” in the greeting.

And it’s not about being on some power trip, or perpetuating the colonizing instrumentality that Freire rightfully and eloquently denounced in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

It’s more about being confronted by folks in the academy – most of them who have enjoyed this title for some time – with the argument that to use our credentials is inappropriate and haughty and tasteless – petty. It diminishes the process we struggled through and frankly, denotes some type of sentiment that delegitimizes our achievement. I don’t like it. To me, it always comes off like when a wealthy person expresses disdain over the discussion of money.

So, discussion point: What is your opinion on using your credentials?

Do you agree? Does any of my story relate to you? Or maybe not – either way, please comment and share your own viewpoint…let’s keep the conversation going! Also, please contact me if you are interested in posting a guest blog.

Until next time, I have another blog in less than 2 scaramuccis!

Palante!

— Dr. ShirLo

 

 

(Photo cred: Binder Sister Dr. Kira Thurman)

 

THE ACCIDENTAL ACADÉMICA – COMING SOON!

No one tells you that the *easy* part of academic life is the torturous process of obtaining your Ph.D. If you’re lucky enough to get a job after becoming “Dr.” whomever (see article on the scarcity of jobs for doctorates), you’re not off the hook yet! Provided you secure a tenure track job (see this article for the even scarier job market scenario for professors), the Road to Tenure is rocky – filled with potholes in the form of grant application denials, article submission rejections, unfair student evaluations, contentious faculty department meetings, and frustrating changes in college policies regarding job expectations. Time is always at a premium. So why am I taking valuable time to write this blog?

Because, well, I’m an imposter. Not really. But, as those of you who have a Ph.D. know: the imposter syndrome is real. I won’t get too much into defining what imposter syndrome is (see here for a very good article on it), but what I will use this blog for is to share. I am big on sharing. I want to share my experience as a student in my program and how, despite receiving almost no support from the faculty, I was able to finish. I want to share my experience with how I was able to form relationships with persons similarly situated and how we supported each other across the PhinishD line and beyond. I want to share my experiences as a single woman who learned very painfully that dating is not easy in or out of academia (yea, a doctorate does not make a person partner-worthy!). I want to share how I completed coursework, conducted my research, and wrote my dissertation all while working 3 full-time jobs. I want to share my story as a poor girl from the Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx – who went from the PJs to PhD. I want to share my experience with meeting leading scholars and researchers in and outside of my field. Because as I share my story, and you share yours with me, we can reinforce our legitimacy in this world filled with ivory towers. Maybe we can convince ourselves that we are not imposters. Maybe?

So where to begin? What shall my first blog post be? Possible titles for my *official* first post include:

  • Why The Accidental Académica?
  • I Should Be Writing – But Netflix is Calling!;
  • When the Professor Who Put Down Your Research Just Published a Book on the Same Topic;
  • Why Taking the Job As Director of [fill in blank] Won’t Get You Tenure;
  • How I Learned That My Cohort BFF Was Not My Friend;
  • When Cohort Friendships Work;
  • Can You Be Both Professor and Friend to Your Students?;
  • When You’re The Only One – Chronicles of an Academic of Color;
  • Why Dating a PhD/Professor Does Not Guarantee They’re Not an Asshole;
  • The First Time I Met My Bibliography!
  • Mysoginy is Alive and Thriving In Academia;
  • Why I Will Always Wear My Hoop Earrings;
  • Can You Stay True to Your Roots and Be An Academic?;
  • Just When You Feel You Can’t Go On, The Students Remind You It’s Worth It;
  • What Does Self-Care Look Like?;
  • How Important Is It That I attend Those Faculty Happy Hours?;
  • Professors Date Students More Often Than We Care to Admit;
  • Spotting the Heathers in Your Department;
  • What Does It Mean to Be An Activist Scholar?;
  • Should You Bother With Social Media:
  • I Didn’t Realize I Was a Politically Incorrect, Leftist, Antidisestablistmentarist Before I Got Into Academia;
  • Latina/o, Latin@, Latinx, OH MY!
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When The Hate Mail Starts Coming In;
  • PLUS POSTS BY GUEST BLOGGERS!

Don’t worry, all of the above will be addressed. But it is not an exhaustive list – there will be other posts. My first post will come soon – I’m planning on releasing posts every other week. Stay tuned, the first blog will be honest, frank, and fun (as will all others). I also encourage you to comment and share your own stories and perspectives – let’s keep the conversation going!

See you soon!

Dr. ShirLo