Sunday, February 2, 2014

I've moved!

My blog now has its own domain name!

We're now hanging over at!  Please come on over, follow the blog, and add to the discussion on my new, improved space.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Grades: Touchiest Subject for a Lot of Us

Recently, grades have been on the minds of a lot of us.  We are writing exams, grading, and fielding annoying emails after grades were posted about why they didn't get the grade they "wanted" or even worse "deserved".  The most interesting exchange I had was in regards to one student who was getting a straight D in the class.  The student wondered why the curve our prof instituted didn't lead to an A- on the final grade.  Truth be told, the student began bombing mid-semester (as shown by the grade book and even with a HEALTHY curve, they only ended up with a D).  But still, they "deserved" the A- at least!

Grades are rough.  When I was teaching on my own and in charge of writing up assessments on papers, it was hard to express myself in a way I felt comfortable with two main types of students - those who are trying and failing (the ones I WANT to improve and help) and those who are obstinate, flippant, and rude (the ones that don't try).  Many of us fight with ourselves about whether to just pass the first type of student knowing full well that they tried.  This was especially hard in a required but otherwise out-of-the-ordinary class like stats.  Students in this class most likely won't use methods training again - especially not those barely passing!  Never will they need this info for their daily lives working a standard desk job.  The latter type of student makes your life so much harder. You know they will protest the grade.  You know they may even harass you outside of office hours.  Last year, this meant a student stalked me in the library, waited for me outside my office door, and also, most likely, left notes on my car.  I was freaked out.  I just wanted to pass him to get him out of my hair.  In the end, the faculty member in charge of the grad-taught labs divvied up the final grades so I, in the end, just handed it over.  Most people will pass these annoying students because they don't want to have them repeat the class next year.

But is that the best solution?

A recent article in the Boston Globe points out concerns about grade inflation at Harvard.  My advisor from Indiana, my undergrad, complained about this problem from when he was doing his doctorate there.  He claimed students were basically precious snowflakes that couldn't put up with the mighty blow of being dealt anything less than an A.  After all, many of these kids had probably never seen an A- in their lives prior to college.  And, I admit, an A- seemed like a big, fat F to me in college - but not because I'd never seen one, my 3.95 college GPA was significantly higher than my high school GPA.  I hated most of high school and only graduated with like a 3.85.  I didn't try.  I was just capable of more.

But it's not just at Harvard.  Most of us can attest to the fact that we face pressures when grading - pressures leading to a test that has a 68 average being not "perfect" enough and an 85 average being "too high".  Shooting for that perfect 75 is often really hard.  And is it fair to shoot for it? You have to decide but, as you do, you also must answer to the department chair, the DUS, and, of course, a future tenure committee.  More importantly, you have to answer to your students.  They will, most frighteningly, determine your worth on teaching school job markets.  You can't piss them off too much or your reviews will look like crap.  Hiring committees matter.  Also, you will have students parading into your office and crying.  And, as I learned earlier this year, parents calling you screaming.

So, it's your choice.  You can either risk it and fight the grade inflation or you can pass the students who will cause an uproar.  What's the solution?  I really don't know.

I do know that certain appeals processes should be made more realistic and that it really should be made clear to students that we are not customer service representatives.  They are here to learn.  Should they choose not to, their grades will suffer.  Our current appeals process almost makes the students WANT to try.  Faculty members who have come here in recent times have been almost blind-sided by how willing students are to waste their time on appeals.  These students are usually here on aid that is somehow merit-based.  Financial aid will not only take away their scholarships, they will also require them to pay back loans on classes that they have stopped attending well before classes were done for the year. These students usually bring up bogus medical excuses and can threaten to sue.  A prof I worked for (in a class I TA'ed) had a student threaten legal action after a 6-month-long appeal went nowhere.  That case also went nowhere but it isn't the only example of such things in the last 4 years since I got here.  Appeals should be granted in legitimate situations.  And the burden of proof about things shouldn't rest on the shoulders of the instructor but the student.

I think the best solution is best summed up by a video that's been floating around my facebook for some time now:

Keep saying "no" and alternative "I'm sorry but...".  It usually works and then you don't completely lose your ability to stand strong.

What say you on such topics?  How do you cope with grade protests?  Grade inflation?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Travelling for the Nut Allergic: 10 reasons it sucks

So, today I come to you a little frustrated.  I'm at a conference with people I adore - my Canadian friends - and I'm in a beautiful place (Tampa) taking a break from school with a conference.  Every time I go to a place for Canadian politics and policy, I meet many new people, hang out with old friends, and learn a lot.  In the past 20 hours, I have met a ton of people, hung out at the hotel bar with a drink, and have very much relaxed and enjoyed myself.  Hell, I even got updated from a standard room to a junior suite with a balcony for no reason other than I was lucky.

However, travelling as a nut allergic grad student kind of sucks.  I am listing ten reasons why.  I can probably think of 100 more but these are my top ten.  Today, I am inspired because I feared I was weither not going to get breakfast before my panel or I was going to have to pay a lot in cab fare to go somewhere I could eat.

You see, since probably the dawn of time (now I sound like my students), I have had issues with nuts in my food.  I can remember fondly as a child eating chocolate with almonds and having my tongue swell up.  However, it tasted so good.  I had plenty of other allergies as a kid - shellfish, citrus, pomegranate, etc.  However, as an adult, my food allergies got a ton worse.  No longer could I deny my reactions after I was covered in hives and sick to my stomach.  I got allergy tested again at 22 and things didn't improve.  I tested with a reaction to almonds and walnuts - two things I had reacted poorly to.  So, I sucked it up and dealt.  I stopped eating those things.  I started asking questions.  However, despite asking about epi pens and special ways to eat safely, my allergist said my reaction "wasn't that bad" and I should avoid food.

Fast-forward to 2012.  I got off a plane from Rwanda and visited my good friend in Manchester, UK.  We visited some friends in the countryside away from Manchester and got ice cream - which I now know is a HUGE no-no.  I asked to see if the ice cream had nuts and was told "no".  I ate it.  Within 30 seconds, I knew it was mis-labeled.  My throat swelled, I coughed for days, I puked - the whole she-bang.  Well, by the time I got home, my mother forced me to go back to my childhood allergist who gave me a bunch of shots, armed me with epi-pens, and told me I was very lucky to be alive and that I should have gone straight to the ER.  I never saw my new allergist again.  I almost died.  I didn't make that mistake again.  Since then, I've completely changed my diet.  It's been very, very hard at times but I do it to stay safe.

So, here are ten reasons it sucks to be nut allergic.  I'm not the only one.  These are things other adults experience - especially when travelling.  Conferences, while fun, can also be a nightmare.

1. Servers and staff don't get it. - This one is a key one.  This morning I explained my allergy to three separate people.  The first person to get it was actually a woman who spoke little English but showed me an allergy safe-handling list that she said she knew. She was the first person I trusted.  I get a whole lot of "but I can pick the nuts off, right?" or "But it shouldn't kill you if it just touched it."

2. People in line don't get it. - They are often annoyed.  They think you are being purposefully difficult.  And, honestly, the whole "gluten free for health" bullshit has made this worse.  Everyone you know is going gluten free.  You probably know someone who is a bit of an attention whore that is doing it.  For this reason, staff get a lot of requests for gluten free from people that aren't gluten allergic and it makes the lives of people with food allergies harder.  You may even have these people at your table who say "oh, I knew a person that grew out of it". You will explain "yes, but I didn't and won't".  They won't get it.  You will just have to deal with it.

3. TSA agents don't get it. - This was awful yesterday.  The TSA tried to take the nut-safe bread that I had baked to bring with me.  It was all I would have until 2PM yesterday.  I can't eat the food on the plane - it always has a "may contain" or "shared facility" label.  It also meant that on the way back, I wouldn't have food either.  I always pack just enough food to get by.  It's hard to know what is in the terminal until you get there.  Usually, there is nothing safe for me before lunch and I don't always have time to sit down.  I had to show them my epi pen and threaten to report them before they let it go.

4. People lie to you. - Before I knew better than to trust ANY dessert unless it was safe, I ate a pastry at Second Cup in Ottawa shortly before boarding the airport bus.  It was a mistake.  I asked a kid to go check about one of the pastries.  He did but he either didn't ask the right person or the person didn't know and just lied.  Either way, my pastry had walnuts, which I didn't know until I started eating.  I came back to Chicago swollen and ill.  I had to fling open my suitcase full of dirty clothing after a week at a conference to find my meds which I had packed.  Canadians, being nice people, helped.  An old man touched my gross underwear trying to help and I was mortified.  NEVER AGAIN.

5. You have to call ahead EVERYWHERE or be prepared to walk around aimlessly for hours. - Try going to a conference in New Orleans with a nut and shellfish allergy.  It's awful.  There were all of 2-3 places in a close distance to our hotel that had anything "safe".  I lived on granola bars until I was done presenting and could get on a bus and go get Persian food.  Walking around got so tiring. It was an endless disappointment.

6. Some days, you are SOL and will NOT find food. - This morning was an example where I thought this was an issue.  I knew that I would not get food if there were no bagels.  I wasn't willing to sacrifice my going home food.  If I got delayed, I would have no more food. That's a scary thought.

7. You can never just go out and have a good time without thinking about it. - Tonight my cousin is meeting me.  I have already called places nearby to see what is safe and what isn't.  It's way harder to just meet people to go to lunch to network. I always have to be prepared to either say "but I can't eat here" or "well, you guys eat, I'm not hungry" (even if I am).

8. Say bye-bye to desserts.  Desserts aren't safe.  And sometimes you will get the stink eye from waitstaff if you are the lone hold out.  And, if it's a plated meal with multiple courses provided by the conference, you have to get that thing away from you.  People may stare as you sit there not eating.  My boyfriend is taking me to a place where I am actually able to have dessert when I get back.  I can't contain my excitement, honestly.

9. Be prepared to pay more.  Since you can't just eat anywhere, you sometimes have to spend a lot more money.  The cafe here didn't have safe food at all.  So, I ended up spending $20.00 for an appetizer at a restaurant that I could get to.  It's stupid but I was bloody hungry.

10. You sound like a broken record and it's annoying as hell to you. - Other peopel may only hear you explain things once but you do it all the time.  You say the same thing to waitstaff over and over for a period of days at a conference.  It makes you tired and sad.  You also worry that anyone else around you finds you similarly annoying but it's what you have to do to stay safe.

Do you have food allergies?  If so, how do you cope on business trips?  Or trips for pleasure?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Parental phone calls: The new normal?

So, teaching assistants, instructors, professors, parents of blogger and twitter, what say you on this topic?

My colleagues and I have noticed that especially recently, parental phone calls are more numerous than ever.  What's more, parents often call without the knowledge of their students.  Why?  I just can't fathom this.  It doesn't do any good, of course. What is the point?

The first phone call I received from a parent was back in 2011.  It was the Spring semester and I was the only TA for a course on American civil liberties.  I had to grade a TON of papers and tests for 75 students.  It was a harrowing semester to say the least but it was the first time I actually dug into dealing with students one-on-one to improve their writing which was actually really satisfying.

My office phone rings and I look over at it.  Who the hell is calling?  During this time, I worked in a dark, dank office in the attic of what USED to be the psych ward of the university hospital.  I have no windows and asbestos tile on all things.  The phone ringing for the first time in EVER was creepy as all get out.  It seemed like the start of a bad horror movie, but I picked it up.  On the other end was an irate parent who kept calling me "professor" when I kept correcting her.  She was calling in regards to a student who had a good grade in the class but she insisted the grade for the student should have been higher.  I told her that I couldn't discuss any specifics but then she said "SHE KNOWS THINGS! HER FATHER IS A DIPLOMAT!"  Uh, okay?  She clearly didn't understand political science subfields at all but more than that, lady was calling without the knowledge of her kid.  I found this out a day later when I talked to her student in class.  I asked the student if she wanted to discuss things.  She was confused.  I explained the conversation and then the student got red in the face.  I found out that she was mortified.  Her mother had called because of her own personal insecurities about the child's grades.  The student was happy with her grade.

The student told me, "I didn't work hard enough to earn an A.  That's it.  I'm not complaining" or something to that regard.  She took her "lumps" as minor as they were and moved on.  Mom couldn't cut the cord.

This year has been something else.  Parents have been emailing myself, the professor, and then calling everyone in the teaching staff for this large section.  We can't discuss grade specifics, of course, but today, crazy went to a whole 'nother level.

The situation was similar to that of the above one with one difference: I am now in an office in a building with carpet, no lead paint, and a WINDOW!  I'm not in a basement either (that was last year).  Small victories, eh?  However, due to it being an old building and our powerstrips being limited, someone must have unplugged our office phone because, I mean, who calls it?  Well, a parent wanted to.  Said parent was spamming the phone downstairs and the administrative assistant emailed me.  I called on my cell because the cordless phone had a now-dead battery.  Stupid mistake.  I will now fear FOR DAYS her calling my cell interminably.

So, I call her back to stop her from harassing our office staff.  She gets all huffy, won't tell me her name, her student's name, etc.  She kept saying "I know my rights" and talking over me.  She finally gave me her information and the student's and I again told her I couldn't speak about grades and that we would be happy to assist her student.  I then asked her the one question I always ask now: "Does your student know you are calling?"

The answer was, of course, no.  It more often than not is.  Kids are usually MORTIFIED when they find out that their parents are calling.  I would be, too.

The call ended with no progress being made for her.  All she did was yell at me, insult my Chicago accent, tell me I spoke "incoherently" because of it, and then call me lazy.  Even if I COULD help, I wouldn't have.  Rule number one of getting what you want: don't insult the only person who can help you!

But why do parents call, then?  If it doesn't work?  If they know that we can't give them this information?

I know it's not a completely new phenomenon because when I was in school, there were definitely parents that felt the need to intervene - usually by requesting access to grades on OneStart, the grade, registration, and financial system my undergrad used.  They never had access to online course materials, raw grades, etc.  Just final grades.  And my parents felt that THIS was an imposition into my life.  They didn't ask me to sign the waiver to let them have access and I was always getting good grades.  Even if I hadn't, they figured I would tell them.  It's worked out similarly with my sister who is just now finishing up her undergrad at the same school.

However, today, this parent confessed to me that they have the password for Blackboard, Facebook, and university email accounts for this student.  The university actually forbids parents and others from accessing Blackboard and university email for fear of academic dishonesty and privacy.  When I informed her she was violating FERPA and university policy, she basically just wondered how she could monitor the every move of her kid without it!

The parents my prof and I have dealt with this semester have all been similarly minded - go behind a student's back and demand a grade change at all costs.  When that doesn't work, just insult the living daylights out of whatever human being you are speaking to.

Why?  Is this a new trend?  Is it going to stay this way or do we just have a fluke of a section of this class?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why the Shutdown Matters to Grad Students

My roommate and I were talking about what the shutdown hadn't done last night:

1. It hasn't completely destroyed our country.
2. It hasn't led to a run on banks.
3. It hasn't done anything to destroy our national security.
4. People aren't likely dying in the street.

So, why should we care?

Well, I actually kind of hate that nothing all that visibly bad has happened.  I mean, I certainly don't wish for chaos or people suffering.  That's the worst.  However, limiting the amount of people which are hurt is one way that the Republicans in Congress can take a stand without causing chaos that will lead to a call for action.  If people were running to banks, protesting en masse, and not getting life-saving services in a widespread way, it would be easy for people to hold legislators accountable. You see, voters are myopic.  They only care about their little world views not because they are apathetic necessarily but because they simply don't have the time to devote to looking outside of the immediate problems burdening them.  This is why we don't see protests en masse.

Another reason is that those most affected are generally too silent and disorganized to put up a fight.  They aren't consistent voters.  They are the young, the poor, and the less-able-to-protest. If you think for a second that this is accidental, it's not.  The Republicans know who they can piss off.  They are smart and shrewd politicians.  The Democrats know who they can afford to lose and who they can't, too.  That's just good politics.  The problem is that what is "good politics" is not necessarily "good for America".

Who specifically could suffer in this shutdown if it continues on for much longer?  Well, all of us if we default.  We would put the global economy into a tailspin.  And, after a large amount of "good days" on Wall Street, that seems a terrible solution to the problem.  Kids on SNAP, WIC, TANF, and other federal programs stand to lose a great deal, too.  They can't fight this.  They are children in need of food and a roof over their heads.  Regardless of your opinions about welfare policy, you probably don't agree with the idea of starving children.  Federal and state employees and people who work for non-profit contractors are also most at-risk of not getting paychecks.  Some are working sans-pay right now with no idea as to how they will pay for Christmas let alone life after the next few weeks.

More specifically, though, grad students should be concerned for two main reasons.  One, the GI Bill and other military tuition assistance programs are very at risk and either are not or will not be able to sustain themselves as programs much longer.  My cousin, who studies international relations and security as an undergrad on a GI Bill, is a veteran who is at-risk currently.  He has saved, so he will be okay without his assistance but many of his fellow veteran students will not.  He risked life and limb and is now being told he may be on the hook for the rest of that tuition this year.  I have a friend in my program currently who has taken the semester off of teaching to use his GI Bill and work on studying for the foreign service exam.  He needs a good job and the GI Bill has been a lifesaver.  Should he suffer?  He tirelessly worked as a medic.  Should he suffer?

Even if you are anti-war and don't see what the hubub is about with the military, you have to see the logic in my argument here.  To begin with, a large number of my students are ROTC and use tuition assistance programs.  We have many Military Studies students in the political science department and have had many masters students in the past (one which was in my cohort).  Many of my fellow students and current students I teach would be SOL barring this support.  This means withdrawals.  Withdrawals mean smaller class numbers next semester and fewer teaching assistantships for graduate students across numerous departments.  Moreover, people who are in ROTC or have been in the military often join out of a need for a way to pay for their education.  These are high-risk students.  Unlike some kids who can lose a scholarship and get their parents to pay or take out a PLUS loan, most of these students do not have recourse.  That's upsetting to me.  It's inegalitarian and it will be felt by the most at-risk disproportionately.

The second reason should probably hit close to home for a lot of us.  Without a budget and without raising the debt ceiling, two things will happen.  One, the we will default on loans and creditors will have issues.  Second, there will be no loans and there won't be federal education assistance.  This means that you and I will not only lose our ability to take out loans to pay fees but our students will as well.  This is a double-whammy.  Even if we can pay all of our bills sans-loans (I mostly could with some work), we may lose our jobs.  If there are massive withdrawals from the university, we may lose our jobs.  We may be able to stay on this next semester but come fall 2014, will we have jobs?

It's frightening.  Write your Congressional Reps and Senators.  Don't let your voice go unheard.  Young people and low income people are the least likely to have their voices heard but it's a numbers game.  If we start showing up in large numbers, they have to listen to us.

Again, it's about who you can and cannot piss off.  If we start becoming more credible threats, they will have to listen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Opening the Dialogue on Mental Health in Grad School for MIAW

Inside Higher Ed's GradHacker blog posted about mental health yesterday in response to Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW).  Turley, who posted the blog, stated,
"I think that mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students."
I have to agree.  I've stated on here numerous times that by the time we get to grad school, we are pretty much intellectually equal.  Time management and stress-management are the areas which either sink us or let us have success.  This is particularly true in times of high-stress such as comps!

I thought the post was well-done and brought up some important suggestions worthy of review.  And, since it is, MIAW and a large portion of this blog is devoted to helping those dealing with mental illness in graduate school, I thought I would tie this all together with a post about dialogue.

The suggestions Inside Higher Ed offered were mainly about dialogue.  I think this is an important point of note.  Why?  Well, as I posted about in "How to Talk to People with Mental Illness", a large part of the "puzzle" of "dealing" with the problems associated with mental illness are associated with stigma and a lack of awareness about resources.  I have been very open with my own struggles with bipolar disorder and how it has been the biggest challenge I have faced in grad school.  I have tried to show that most people deal with mental illness or face hardships associated with stress or anxiety in grad school whether it be prior to comps or specifically during the comps process.  Likewise, because I am a survivor of sexual assault and have also tried to be open about this, I have talked about the importance of being aware of the process of dealing with survivors and what comes "next" in the process of healing.  Most importantly, I have tried to open the dialogue on here and twitter in hopes that people would realize they aren't alone.  This was my most popular post this year.

I think people are starting to become aware on the blogosphere and on twitter of the reality of how prevalent mental illness is in grad school.  As I've said before, it's rather important to put this all into perspective.  I can think of few people who haven't seen a counselor.  And, in my opinion, most people who haven't seen one here, probably could have benefitted from seeing one at one time or another.  Whether it is just a "rough patch" or a legitimate disorder that needs to be diagnosed, the "treatment" is the same.  Thus, it doesn't matter what we call it.  Everybody's got something.  That's a thing I think we should emphasize.  While I deal with sometimes unique situations due to OCD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, most of what I have been through is pretty relatable and standard grad school "fare" that is associated with stress and anxiety that MOST will experience in their time here.

That's why the GradHacker article is a good one, I think. It recommends three things:

1. "Graduate departments need to openly acknowledge the problem."2. "Academic advisors should receive training on preventing, recognizing, and addressing mental health issues in their students (and themselves too!)."3. "Graduate programs should offer (or even require) courses or workshops that teach yoga and mindfulness techniques."
Starting with number 1, I agree.  My department is not awful about this but there have been teachable moments here that I think have gone undiscussed.  In two instances, a grad student basically was a danger to themselves and another person.  I was the target of such a situation when a student basically became obsessed with me, stalked me, and then threatened to hurt themselves when I refused to help them do their homework. The student was eventually asked to leave the program for poor performance and the DGS reached out to this person.  He was more than helpful suggesting resources but the student either did not pursue them or did not get the preferred results.  In another instance, another student stalked a fellow cohort member, was a danger to herself, and the DGS admitted to WALKING her over to a hold.  Again, good for him.  He does look out for us.  However, in both instances, no more further discussion was called for.  These were moments the administration of the department could have used to bring us together, offer up resources, and possibly bring in a person from mental health to have a more open discussion.  Still, at least the administration hasn't ignored the problem here and is more than willing to LISTEN and help.  That's huge.

Number 2 is something I feel strongly about as a future academic and as a current grad student.  I do not doubt that my advisor is one of the best ones here as far as helping with this problem.  As I posted here, she has taken a personal interest in the unique problems facing female students trying to balance it all - school, life, and society's conflicting expectations. If I went to her looking for resources, I bet she would be able to help and would actively try.  However, I know others have not received the same level of support from other advisors or in other departments.  When a guy I was dating awhile ago admitted that the lack of sleep due to terrible lab hours was making him feel completely out of touch with reality, his advisor basically told him to suck it up.  We've talked since he graduated and got a job with a much better work-life-balance and he said that the last year here was the worst year of his life thus far.  The strangeness of being in a foreign country, having no time to even sleep or eat, and having no friends took its toll.  He now sees a therapist and is feeling much better.

I have talked about the need to be aware of resources for both general stress and anxiety and for sexual assault crisis.  We are faced with problems that our students bring us even as grad students.  I make myself aware of the mental health and counseling resources on campus as well as the sexual assault crisis resources.  This particular school has EXCELLENT resources.  If I was advising grad students in the first semester of grad school or teaching an introductory seminar, I would like start that first seminar or meeting off with a general overview of what stress is like in grad school, that it is "the norm" and that how you deal with it is what matters.  I wish more people did this.  The more open we are about the problem - not just in closed-door settings - the more likely we are to solve the problem.

In regards to number 3, I agree with the idea of offering mental health seminars or cohort meetings for first year grad students.  This is proactive.  If a counselor was brought in once every other week for drop-in meetings and open discussions with a cohort in a conference room somewhere, good techniques could be gained in dealing with stress and anxiety.  Likewise, students would not feel as isolated.  Eventually, if you manage to get through semester one, you will realize that everyone is dealing with the same damn thing.  But you have to get there first!

The counseling and mental health centers on campus offer a variety of stress-mangement, sexaul assault recovery, and mindfulness resorces here that I think are very valuable.  However, few are grad-student specific.  Because I am aware of stigma and the perceptions of undergraduates as well as my age, I am reluctant to join any group that is not grad-student specific. It would be a conflict of interest to have a student or future student in there.  But hey, at least some grad-specific things exist and there are sexual assault survivor groups, which is more than I can say for my undergraduate school.  And, there, everything cost a lot of money.  Here, 90% of these resources are free and if they aren't, they take insurance.  Indiana did not take any form of insurance, which was a huge barrier to poor grad students seeking treatment, I'm sure.

All in all, I look forward to having more dialogue on this blog in the future (in the comments) and on twitter.

Big takeaways that I think we should focus on is that we need to provide resources to students before things get hairy.  Provide the resources to deal with stress and anxiety first rather than just react to the problem.  And as future academics or current academics, we should be aware of what resources are available and work actively to smash stigma.

Friday, October 4, 2013

So you think you can do my job?

Random Family Member: What is is that you do all day?  Just sit around?
Me: I actually work on projects, teach classes, do coursework
RFM: So, you're basically a college student still?
Me: No.
RFM: You just write about your opinion all day, then, right?
Me: No.
RFM: Then what do you do?
Me: Research.  Teaching.
RFM: You must have a lot of fun and free time.  Anyone could do that.  When you do something useful, let me know.
Yeah, this is a conversation a lot of academics will probably experience and HAVE experienced in the upcoming holiday season if they are like me.  One of my grandmothers has determined that I live a pretty cushy life where I don't do anything except scare away potential suitors.  My work week pre-comps was somewhere around 70 hours a week and it was like that for most of the first three years of my PhD.  Everyone thinks life in the ivory tower is easy and silly at times.  We sit around on our asses and twiddle our thumbs.

And if you are a political scientist, you have recently probably had a similar conversation to this:
Random family member's facebook post: If only there were {insert asinine political solution here such as term limits, a balanced budget amendment, no political parties} we wouldn't have this problem.  Those Democrats are the worst!  Tea Party 4EVAH!
Me: Actually, that wouldn't solve the problems that we face {present rational argument here}
RFM: No, that wouldn't do it. We have to have to get them to DO things.  This system is so screwed up and slow!  It's full of so much ARGUING!  If only they followed the Constitution!
Me: Actually, the Constitution designed the system to be inherently conservative.  That's why we see these issues here and not in a Westminster system like in the UK.
RFM: Conservative!  It's the stupid libs!  Liberalism is the death of this nation!  Socialists are running everything!!! ELEVENTY!!!
Me: None of those words mean what you think they mean.  This country was founded on liberalis and both parties come from a "liberal" political tradition.  Socialism requires common ownership of things like the means of production and the provision of service by government, generally.  That does not happen here.
RFM: I think I would know! You're a Democrat, so you don't matter!  GAHHHHHH.  I've been paying taxes for 50 years! You young idealistic liberals won't get it!
Yes, it's frustrating as hell.  Not that I don't have about 8 years of training in the subject or anything!  I guess I'm pretty useless.  It's enough to make your head explode.  It offends me a great deal because when people say things like this, it means (to me) that what I do isn't worthy of recognition or respect.  What I do is not only "silly" or "useless" but somehow begins to OFFEND people.  You wouldn't tell an accountant how to do an audit.  Why would you tell me about politics or teaching?  Why would you make assumptions about what we do?  I don't know but it makes me reel.

The worst part is, the more you dig your heels in and try to make it clear that you know more, the more you try to educate these people, the worse it actually gets.  Because then you just look like an elitist snob in their eyes.  Let's face it, we speak PhD now.  We talk about what we do in ways that people can't understand and it's very, very hard to explain what we do in "normal" terms.

I felt bad recently when my boyfriend told me his parents thought I seemed to be genuinely smart but they couldn't understand what I did at all.  I knew that they didn't get it because I hadn't explained it well.  So, the next time they ask me, I will try even HARDER to explain it in common terms.  We use very artificial, technical language like ABD, comps, R&R, etc to explain our lives.  It's not easy for our parents, family members, spouses, significant others, and friends outside of academia to "get" it.  It's something I have to work on.  And in the case of the boyfriend's parents, I never intended to do anything.  I generally don't intend to confuse anyone.  So, getting upset when people don't get it can be a natural response but not something you should immediately get offended over.

Still, how do you deal with people trying to do your job?  Do you avoid all family gatherings so you don't have to listen to Uncle Joey berate you about how your job is useless to "average people" and how you've gotten so uppity since going away to school?  Do you write Grandma out of your Christmas card list (does anyone still make those anyhow?)?  Do you unfriend everyone from facebook?

The truth is, there are no easy answers.  I try to avoid getting into it with people.  It's a situation where assuming everyone is simply ignorant and means well is the only way to go.  If I just assume that people are ignorant, I look at my responses as needing to be diplomatic.  I see myself as sort of an ambassador to my career and discipline with these people.  They may say things that annoy me but they don't mean it.

Well, except sometimes they do, right?

Yeah.  Yeah, sometimes they do.  You will encounter Uncle Jed the Shitstirring Teapartiest at various gatherings but just smile and treat him the same.  If it gets down to the point of name calling on his point, take the high road.  I had this happen at my sister's graduate party 4 years ago. A cousin would NOT leave me alone and called me a little girl.  He got downright rude, called me a useless person who could "only" think, and then made fun of the way I dressed.  It was clearly coming from a place of insecurity and inebriation, so I wrote it off.

I won't lie and say these things don't annoy me or bother me.  They do.  After all, what I do every day is part of my life's work.  How could I not feel offended when people resort to personal attacks and name calling about it?  Academics is a lot about "love" of what you do.  If someone attacks the thing you love, you tend to get offended.  That's what makes it a little different from a 9 to 5 at a bank (as if those exist!) or a job for a government contractor.  It's all culminating, you can't turn it off, and you have to preach it on a regular basis to students!

The reality is that there are a lot of insecurities. If you approach the situation assuming that, you will be infinitely better off.  When it gets to hitting below the belt, shove off.  Ignore the person.

Hopefully, the people you value the most will either "get it" or at least be supportive and not deny that you do happen to know more on a subject than they do.  Also, they probably won't be ignorant of all the important things you have to do, the amount of time you put in, etc.  My boyfriend gets most of it and he's very supportive of me.  My parents have no clue what I do, in reality, and don't understand a word of methods jargon that comes out of my mouth but they are glad I do what I love.  Those are the people that matter, anyway.