Ok, let’s get one thing straight: This is not a shame post. If your anxiety-brain or Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria-brain interprets the title of this post to say that you, specifically, need to keep doing your PhD even though it feels unbearable I want to tell you that this is not that thing. I’m not here to force anyone to do a PhD that doesn’t want to.
The world 100% needs your brilliance but there are near infinite ways for you to share that with us.
[SIDENOTE: You know those posts that are all, “Self-care isn’t all bubblebaths and cupcakes. Sometimes it’s paying the bills!” Who are those for? Seriously? Who needs that message?! Everyone I have ever met with anxiety is already berating themselves for not being more responsible. Let us have our bubblebath posts!]
So, with that long-ish disclaimer you may be wondering who this post is for.
This post is for all of you struggling to work on your dissertation right now.
Which, honestly, I think is all of us?
That’s okay. That’s being human.
I know when the world has so many immediate needs it can be hard to sit down and work on dissertation things.
After all, dissertations aren’t read widely. The average dissertation has an audience of five people: you and your committee. It doesn’t feel like a world-changing document and every humanities PhD I’ve ever met got into the game because they wanted to make the world a better place and in times like these the dissertation, or even the PhD, doesn’t feel like a good way to do that.
Many of us can see our teaching for the activism it is–helping students see and understand privilege, giving them a critical vocabulary, and even inspiring them to take action.
We are not the first scholars to face a deadly virus, endless war, and an extreme right wing. Since Donald Trump became the leader of the Republican party in my country I have often turned to the opening lines of Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. Rubin writes,
The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality. Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries. they acquire immense symbolic weight. Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.
Rubin’s writing particularly appeals to me because, I, too, am a scholar of sexuality and I know that, in times like this, yammering on about sex can feel very silly.
Perhaps your topic feels a little silly when compared to pandemics and protests too.
But your topic is not silly. Your topic is needed. Your voice is needed.
As Rubin notes, when so many things are out of control people become a little crazy about what they can control, or feel they can control.
That is one reason why we still need your dissertation. We still need your knowledge to combat those who forget history, don’t understand politics, have misconceptions about sexuality, and don’t understand whatever human problem your dissertation is studying.
Your dissertation is, in and of itself, activism. It is a way of creating new knowledge and making the world a better place. It is a way of giving your community of origin a voice. It is a way of speaking truth to power.
For all of you who are here despite this system not being built for you, to people of color, to working-class scholars, to first-generation folx, to queer scholars, women, and scholars with visible and invisible disability–Just showing up into this hostile space is its own form of activism. When we add your dissertation to the repository we destabilize the canon of knowledge based on wealthy white male experience.
Keep showing up. Keep writing. Let us know if we can help.