[Note: All names and identifying characteristics have been changed.]
The exact moment that I knew I was finished with academia–and, more specifically, Women’s and Gender Studies, which I had once adored and wanted to pursue a PhD in–was in 2010, during a graduate Women’s Studies seminar at a rather middling-tier state university where I was enrolled as an M.A. student. I distinctly remember shoving my sunglasses on my cried-out, red eyes before going to class, sitting down, and then hunching over to make myself appear smaller. It was a month before the end of the semester. Right before class, the instructor–also the head of the department at that time–had called me in for a meeting because she was “concerned” about my attendance. The first week of the term, I had met with her to discuss my accessibility needs, and give her advance notice that my ongoing chronic pain and fatigue caused by fibromyalgia would sometimes prevent me from making it to class.
She seemed okay with this in the abstract, and mentioned that she’d worked with several students with special accommodation needs. Until this health issue actually (SHOCK/HORROR) got in the way of my making it to her class three times in a 16-week semester, I figured we were okay. There was even an accessibility statement on her syllabus!
During this meeting–because having it right before class apparently wasn’t anxiety-producing enough, and during which I was unable to stop crying–she said something to the effect of, “Three classes is a lot for a student to miss, regardless of their health issues.” She also suggested that I take more classes that were not seminars (forgetting, I guess, that a certain number of advanced seminar classes in the department were required for M.A. students to take in order to get their degrees). Why didn’t I look into taking online courses as well (even though the department offered no online courses at that time)? Overall, she made it clear that my health-related absences when it came to her class were simply not acceptable–this, even though she could just tell that I was “very bright,” obviously trying my hardest, and well-prepared for seminars when I did make it to class.
I wanted to scream, but more than that, I wanted to disappear. Or press the rewind button on my own life so I could skip this program altogether. Why am I here? Why am I putting so much effort into getting a 4.0 in this damn program when this–THIS–is the result of my hard work? She talked some more, mostly about how it “wouldn’t be fair to the other students” if she excused my health-related absences from class. I nodded, wanting to save face but suspecting that it wasn’t enough. She concluded with some rice cake-fluffy inspirational platitudes about how we all have to make “choices” and how she, too, had had to make difficult decisions in achieving “work-life balance” given her own personal issues.
I did little to stop the sarcastic commentary running through my head as I listened to her spiel: Oh, so a life-altering disability that I’ve been dealing with for years–and the inaccessibility of her ridiculous class that I make a 5-hour round-trip commute for as much as I can, and participate in, despite the burning pain caused by my body that I deal with every goddamn day, and the fatigue, while taking a full course load–is a personal issue? So much for academic feminists “supporting” the very women they teach–some of whom are giving their energy, their bodies, their minds to “the cause” of advancing feminist theory.
I glanced at the clock as I awkwardly sniffed back a nose full of mucus. It was time for class. I shuffled in, crammed my sunglasses onto my face, and tried to will myself to stop crying. When class began, the professor started our usual short pre-discussion “check-in” chat with a question that seemed drawn straight from a compendium of the Absolute Worst Stereotypes of Academic Women’s Studies (in my imagination, such a volume might be co-authored by Camille Paglia and Daphne Patai):
“So, everyone, what color do you feel like today? I know everybody’s stressed out, so let’s have a little fun with our check-in.”
At that instant I wanted to laugh, then projectile vomit all over everything.
When my turn came, I responded, “Gray.”
The professor looked at me, confused. “Gray? That’s it?”
I did not make eye contact with her, preferring instead to stare at a blank page in my notebook. “Yeah. Gray.”
…when health problems or disabilities–or other “limitations” such as family or work commitments–get in the way of us being perfect grad-bots, suddenly there are issues, and we can no longer be trusted to be “good” graduate students. At the same time, we’re expected to know what to do, what to say–and how much to sacrifice on the altar of an academic career–at all times.
I don’t remember the content of that particular seminar meeting. I do remember freaking out, I remember physically hurting more than usual, and I also remember not wanting to stay silent about what had happened before that class session–but still concerned about possible retaliation by the department head if I spoke out about her shitty power move. One of my classmates, Renee, wrote me a Facebook message inquiring if I was okay, and I told her about what had happened. Her response, in part, read: “WTF? You are more engaged than MOST of the people in that class. It’s also really weird that she assigned us that Robert McRuer piece on queerness and compulsory able-bodiedness but doesn’t really seem to get it.” I also learned–from several people, and quite a bit later–that this professor had a troubling history with accommodating students with disabilities.
I briefly considered legal action, since section 504 of the ADA was apparently no big deal to this professor, and the university probably would’ve taken exception to that–but realized just as quickly that such a move would take up resources–physical energy, time, money–that I was pretty much already spending trying to maintain a place for myself in the program. The past few months had brought with them a number of challenges in my non-academic life, and this latest upset was not helping. Nor was the professor’s stance that, were I to have another absence in the final month of the semester, she could not “in good conscience” (her words, from an email) give me a passing grade.
This was how I ended up barely making it through a class session two weeks after our initial meeting about my absences, after spending 7 hours the previous night in the ER–for severe pain, because one of the not-so-amazing things about having a debilitating pain condition is that it tends to become even more debilitating in times of extreme stress. My partner had insisted on driving me to campus that day (an hour and a half away by car, which was a bit more reasonable than my usual 2 ½ hour each-way, public transportation commute) since I was loopy on new medications and from lack of sleep. I recall that I made one or two comments during that class session, and spent most of my energy trying not to hit myself in the face with my own hand, thanks to way-cool side effects from the aforementioned new medications. When I’d privately alerted the professor before class that some medical issues were causing me to not be on top of things, she made some noises about how she appreciated that I had “pushed through” to be in class that day.
I didn’t “push” through to be in class today, I thought. I’m here because you do not understand how you could possibly be shitty–or “oppressive,” as we like to mouth in this department–to a younger feminist who is not able-bodied.
I was fortunate enough to get through the rest of the semester–and my only class with this professor, glory glory hallelujah–without further incident. At the end of that semester, she stepped down as department head for reasons unknown to me and my classmates. I felt guilty for feeling so happy about that, and I still sort of do. I was also excited to begin my second year of the grad program, and was planning to write and draw a graphic/cartoon memoir on chronic pain, and feminist responses to chronic illnesses and pain that tend to be more frequently diagnosed in women (most notably CFS and fibromyalgia). Few grad students in the department did creative projects–the last person who’d completed one had written and performed a theater piece six years prior–but it was an option, along with a field study or a more “traditional” analytical thesis. Much as I hate to admit it, I had felt extremely bored during much of my first year of grad study at Middling State U. I also felt like this was my fault, in the way that type-A people tend to, and so figured it was up to me to make my M.A. program experience not boring.
My advisers in the department were extremely supportive of my project, but the Official Graduate Adviser was skeptical of the benefits of creative projects–as she did not hesitate to remind me several times that year, “Creative projects can be really hard for some students”– and even more so of my enthusiasm for independent study and courses outside of the department that had practical applications to my thesis. Professor OGA explained to me the importance of not doing “too many” independent study units and non-department classes thusly: “The reason that we want you to be engaged with other Women’s Studies grad students and not take too many classes outside of Women’s Studies, or do too much independent study with one of your thesis advisers, is so you can form a bond with this intellectual community that we’ve built in our department.”
I smiled and said, “I understand,” even as I thought Yes, because completing this program to the best of my ability isn’t hard enough on my body, and obviously finding ways to work within my limitations is just WEIRD and NOT very Women’s Studies! I can totally show up here exhausted all of the time, participate in class, and get a high GPA with no ill effects! Oh, wait. I guess she hasn’t heard about my “issues” with attendance last semester. There’s that whole running roughshod over one’s body thing for the academic WGS “cause,” again. Later in the meeting, when she suggested that I take an art class–which, for me, would have required an additional 6-8 hours on campus per week, all at night–I had a panic attack.
As fate/fuckery would have it, I also had a class with Professor OGA that semester, whose idea of sustaining “intellectual community” amongst the Women’s Studies grad students included the following tactics:
–Taking her own chronic pain (from arthritis in one shoulder) seriously, but being unwilling to try to understand students with similar health challenges on a day-to-day basis by peppering her interactions with them with weirdly microaggressive tactics; during a meeting on my required class facilitation, she scolded me by saying, “I know you’re tired, but you NEED to focus here so that your facilitation on Monday is up to par and not just a Q and A session.” (I was somewhat surprised to get an A on that facilitation.)
–Putting the department’s need to look good to outsiders above almost everything else. To wit, those of us in her class were consistently “encouraged” to attend department lectures and other events. The six of us in her seminar that semester were, at the semester’s end, required to attend the annual departmental holiday party, which was its own special kind of awkward. I was once asked by her if I might “reschedule” (!) a much-needed doctor’s appointment (30 minutes before I was due at the clinic) so that I could attend a departmental colloquium taking place at the same time–to “support” the Women’s Studies instructor making the presentation and, by extension, the department.
–For a required graduate class on Women and Social Justice Movements, spending almost an entire 3-hour class session in the final six weeks of the semester re-explaining what the phrase “social justice” meant, because one seminar member’s written proposal for a final project was not up to Professor OGA’s high standards. After class ended, the seminar classmate whose work was supposedly not up to par– normally a very reasonable and relaxed person when not under professor-created duress–had a terrifying panic attack as soon as she stepped outside.
At times, I was so eager to throw myself onto that flaming pyre–to be a “good” grad student–that I could not see that it was seriously damaging me.
The above, of course, is just a highlight reel that any power-hungry, aspiring ivory tower Ms. Pac-Man would do well to consult, perhaps in a manual about how to make your so-called “progressive” and “history-making” Humanities graduate program an utter waste of the majority of your students’ time as they are constantly bombarded with reminders that they are so lucky to be there; after all, what would they be doing in the real world had glorious academia not come to their rescue? After two years of this–and especially after I completed the illustrations and text for my M.A. project–I knew that a PhD, and all of the sacrifices that go with it, simply would not be in the cards for me.
Now, the obvious questions: Why let these two professors cast a giant shadow over my grad school experience? Why not just focus on the good things?
To address these queries, I must refer to the wise words of an Anthropology professor whose class on race in the 20th century was, in fact, one of the “good things” about my time at Middling State U: “Grad school is about the socialization process for future academics as much as it is about learning.” This socialization process, in my experience, seems to be a key to some “sociology lite” disciplines like Women’s Studies. If you get a reputation as difficult, as somehow not taking attendance as “seriously” as you should (and, as demonstrated above, this is open to multiple interpretations–even ones that break the law, surprise!), as someone who is not a team player, your reputation might come back to you if you don’t deal with it correctly. Even if you have people on your side–as I did–you can still get a reputation as “difficult to work with” very easily. You can do great work, or have the potential to do great work, and still have to manage higher-ups’ feelings about your shortcomings, or what they perceive to be shortcomings.
Unfortunately, I found myself doing this whole “management of peoples’ feelings about my disability/chronic pain/fatigue and how I deal with it” slap-a-smile-on-it shit more than I wanted to; a few weeks after my run-in with the department head, we had a conversation mediated by one of my academic advisers about what had happened, and even though this meeting went fine, I still did not feel like I could really tell the department head what I really thought: that her expectations for me, given my health circumstances, were steeped in ableism and not particularly consistent with her “feminist” principles (nor okay in the eyes of the law).
I had a few personal goals for getting the most out of the advanced degree program in Women’s Studies at Middling State U when I started: I wanted to focus on looking at these issues in new ways, on intellectual rigor, on complex discussion, and, yes, on my own academic interests. But some Humanities grad programs have an odd emphasis on treating their Master’s students–and I would not be surprised if some PhD students experience this as well–as “adults” even as we’re infantilized in the weirdest and most unsettling manner possible, often at the same time. We’re expected to make lengthy, multi-hour discussion sessions the 21st century equivalent of 18th century Paris salons, AND to attend on-campus events that have even the tiniest thing to do with “our department,” AND be up for “quick” chats with fellow students or professors, AND to be present and engaged and intellectual and positive at all times…as many grad students in the Humanities will tell you, there’s much more.
But when health problems or disabilities–or other “limitations” such as family or work commitments–get in the way of us being perfect grad-bots, suddenly there are issues, and we can no longer be trusted to be “good” graduate students. At the same time, we’re expected to know what to do, what to say–and how much to sacrifice on the altar of an academic career–at all times. What no one told me was that my classmates and I were not in grad school to represent ourselves, our work, or our potential to bring new perspectives to the field of Women’s Studies; as another classmate of mine, Bettina, pithily observed, we were there to “represent” our department by looking like perfect grad-bots, even if such a presentation was not entirely truthful. (How any actual learning took place during that period is something that I am still trying to figure out.)
By the time my diploma arrived in the mail seven months after I’d submitted the final paperwork for my M.A., I realized that I could no longer throw my always-aching, constantly tired body onto the pyre of academic feminism again and again, only to be angry and perplexed when I emerged as ash and bone bits. Even years later, I feel strange when I think about that time in my life. At times, I was so eager to throw myself onto that flaming pyre–to be a “good” grad student–that I could not see that it was seriously damaging me. The “GET OUT NOW”-level flames only got my attention when I noticed that a few of my ivory tower feminist elders were the ones holding the torches to keep that pyre lit.