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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Scholar vs. Academic? Should We Take More Time to Smell the Roses?

David J. Leonard, a Professor at WSU in comparative ethnic studies made a really good point in a recent blog post he wrote entitled "Scholars versus Academics".  I thought his short, succinct post was well-argued as someone currently in-process of getting a PhD.

He argues that the normal constraints put on graduate students and junior faculty are often too much on their own and take away from the bigger picture.  We should be training scholars, after all, not academics.  Scholars, according to Leonard and others, are multidisciplinary and focused on development outside of publishing.  Academics push paper and publish.  That's a problem for some.

Certain responsibilities are bound to take over, of course, and publication will matter even for those on the teaching school market at this point.  You are out there in a sea of newly-minted PhD's and those who have accepted visiting positions that now have even LONGER CV's and more experience than they did the year before.  You have to focus on what sets you apart.  But even before that, graduate students are taxed with a ton of responsibilities that can really hinder their development as scholars.

Think about your first year in grad school.  Here, you are required to hold down a .25 or .50 teaching load or research assistantship (these are rarely given to first year students in my department).  You are focused on working 10 or 20 hours a week on teaching, supposedly.  In most of my assignments, I have worked well over that 20 hours maximum.  So, you have to focus not only on your first year of coursework and possibly proposing some conference papers, but also that teaching load.  And it's only the first time you have likely ever been asked to teach or guide students in this way in your life!

This, I believe is a main problem for a lot of departments - and it's worse in many departments than my own.  I think putting the burden of teaching on fledgling graduate students is unfair to graduate students and it's unfair to undergraduates, as well.  I think back to my time as a green-as-grass first year and shiver about all of the things I did not know.  I learned so much about the discipline, teaching, and subject matter in that first year that I can't even explain it easily.  I worked with both a seasoned and a new professor and took a lot away from that important contrast there.  I think observing teaching and the ways others did it (even if I didn't agree with things or would have done something differently) was a key part of my development.  I have since gone on to teach my own "labs" for an intro methods course which is, arguably, the most time-consuming assignment our department offers to graduate students.  But that was in my 3rd year of school not my first.

Some departments are throwing grad students out to teach their own introductory sections their first semester or second semester - well before they are capable of handling these responsibilities.  A lot of my colleagues complain that we don't get enough teachers training.  I see their point but I also have heard the horror stories of others about being "thrown to the wolves" in other departments.  I think we actually have it pretty good compared to other departments in that regard.  Our department rarely gives students their own labs or sections until year 3 or year 4 of their graduate career.  Most independent sections of classes will wait until a student is ABD.  This is the best thing for ALL involved, in my opinion.

What happens when you are a first year graduate student teaching your own course all on your own?

Bad things.  Your perceptions of what is the reality of teaching, what works, and what you need to do emphasize will probably be off.  You will also likely burn out with little mentoring support.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, your students will suffer.  Maybe some people with a Masters already or some prior teaching experience will handle it well enough but I know I could never have managed it.

Professional development really, really matters.  Having a mentor matters. Watching others teach is an integral part of "growing" as a scholar.  Getting more time to smell the roses is good.

This also concerns field research.  I believe an over-reliance on teaching assistantships makes it difficult for students to pursue qualitative research or case studies.  Here, you want to find your data ASAP, write your dissertation in an "okay" and publishable format (3 journal articles, generally) and get the hell out.  The problem is that lots of problems go unaddressed and you never learn to do field research.  I have been lucky enough to have gotten some opportunities in this area which have helped me smell the roses, meet people from other nations and disciplines, and grow as a scholar AND academic.  Many are not this lucky and my fellowship on top of my teaching assistantship affords me more flexibility.  Most of the students in my program don't have this luxury.

I think there are definite priority problems for PhD students, as I've said above.  Teaching is something you should LEARN to do and should be something you are mentored on.  It's not some sort of sink-or-swim experiment in which you take the lives of unassuming undergraduates in your hands and pray you can survive your semester alive and teach as best you can.  That's not the point of training scholars at any level.  Being a scholar is also about broadening the approach and answering important questions- some which can't be answered by canned data which already exists on ICPSR.  Being too focused on the teaching assistantships offered by the department leads graduate students to either forgo funding and finish their dissertation or forgo answering important questions to save funding.

There is still a great deal which needs to be improved upon.  Nothing is perfect but I count myself as one of the lucky graduate students that HAS received good support in teaching and research from department.  Not everyone is so lucky.

We shouldn't lose track of what makes a scholar a scholar.  If we want to educate a new generation of scholars, we need to create graduate students that broaden their minds and go on to teach a new generation of undergraduates that can also go on to be scholars.  If we lose this goal, we do a disservice to the next generation of thinkers and make ourselves irrelevant.