Stop Working So Hard

You are working too hard on teaching and you need to stop.

I know you think you’re not doing enough, but I promise you that you are doing too much.

How do I know this?

Because all new professors do too much. (And, yes, if you have yet to defend your dissertation I’m counting you as “new.”)

I think there are a lot of reasons why PhD candidates work too much on teaching. In part, it’s because teaching is significantly clearer than dissertation work. You have a time that you show up at a place and you do a thing and then it’s done in stark contrast to dissertation work which you can start whenever you want and never feels done. It’s significantly easier to measure your progress in teaching. If you have twelve papers to grade and grade six of them then you are halfway done in contrast to dissertation work where you may write 600 words but how close is that to done, exactly? Perhaps the most seductive thing about teaching, though, is that it lets us feel like experts because when you teach you are automatically viewed as the expert in the room whereas, with writing a dissertation, we are constantly thinking about how to prove that we know a thing.

Teaching, as we’ve said before, expands to fill the space you give it and many, many ABD students give teaching too much of their time because, for the reasons mentioned above, teaching feels good when other parts of the PhD process do not.

As always, there is something about the type of person who wants to get a PhD in the first place that lends towards the teaching-too-much problem. If you are getting a PhD you probably love learning and you probably want other people to love learning which means you’re going to put a lot of your time and energy into making your classes a space where students can love learning.

These are all the reasons why I know you are teaching too, too much and you need to stop it.

Here are three ways to help you teach less without short-changing your students:

  1. Let go of the idea of coverage. It’s not possible to cover everything in a single class particularly if, like most graduate students, you are teaching an intro level survey class. You will want to cover everything, but you can’t. The professor who first gave me this advice used this example, “So what if you teach a class about the 20th century and don’t cover World War I?!” This was from an historian. Her point, however, was that when putting together your syllabus you have to let go of the idea that you will cover everything. Instead of trying to cover everything include a mix of what you think they absolutely need to know and what you find interesting.
  2. Limit your teaching time. Again, teaching will expand to fill the time you give it so one of the absolute best ways to do less teaching is to limit the amount of time you allow yourself to teach. I mean this literally. Set a timer when you work on teaching tasks. The timer shouldn’t be for longer than an hour. When the timer goes off you stop doing teaching things.
  3. Time your teaching. Set a time limit for how much teaching work you will do per week. The general assumption is that you’ll spend twenty (20) hours a week on teaching things and the same amount on research and writing things. In reality, most people work far more than this on both their research and teaching. However much you actually work commit to spending absolutely no more than half of those hours on teaching things. The important thing here is to make sure that you count ALL of your teaching hours. This doesn’t just mean you count the hours you spend grading. It means that you count the time you spend in the classroom, in office hours, prepping for class, and grading. Time all of those things, add up how much total time it is and when you reach half of your working hours for the week it’s time to cut off teaching.

If you practice these tips you will reduce the amount of time you spend teaching which will give you more time to dissertate. I know first hand, however, that it can be difficult to put these tips into practice because it can feel that limiting our time on teaching will, somehow, short change our students.

I can only promise you that it won’t. Putting these tips into practice for the first time may feel scary but I would urge you to try it for a month and see if the quality of your teaching decreases.

In my experience, when I limit the amount of time I spend on individual teaching tasks and the amount of total time I spend teaching weekly my teaching improves immensely. It improves because I have more energy and focus for teaching. It improves because limiting time helps me prioritize my teaching tasks. It improves because I feel less distracting guilt that I’m not working on my dissertation enough.

We hope that these tips will help you save time on teaching and create time for dissertating from now to the end of the present term. For our next couple of posts we’re going to focus on how to set up your syllabus so that you have less grading and less class prep from the beginning.

How to Fail

Earlier this week we shared that a crucial part of making progress on your dissertation isn’t just letting go of perfection but actively giving yourself the freedom to fail.

Today, we’re going to share our favorite ways to fail.

If you take lessons in acrobatics, stagecraft, or tumbling, one of the first things you will learn is how to fall. While we’ve all been challenged by gravity a time or two there are better ways to fall than others. There are ways to fall that you can recover from so the routine goes on and, if you can’t recover, there are ways to fall that minimize the possibility of injury.

In the same way, there are better and worse ways of failing.

Trying to prevent failure in the dissertation process is futile. The only thing you can do is learn to fail forward.

If you’re in a US institution then you are in a culture were we are discouraged, in numerous ways, from talking about our failures.

Beyond this broader cultural taboo, however, is a problem peculiar to academia: most of us chose to be in academia because we’ve always been good at learning.

We were the kids who got “A”s on most of our school work. We are better than average at testing of all kinds, at reading comprehension, and writing. We like making nuanced arguments. Many of us were encouraged to go to grad school because we are good at these things.

We choose graduate programs that play to our strengths. For instance, I find media and culture incredibly interesting so I picked a PhD program that would allow me to focus on cultural critique and media analysis. Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents. I love analyzing documents. I’m very good at it. I conducted exactly one interview during my MA program and learned that I hated it.

My story is not uncommon. Most of us, particularly in the humanities, are blessed to be able to choose our programs and projects according to what interests us and what we are good at.

This will serve you well in coursework and even through your prospectus writing.

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

You see, for many of us, pursuing a career in the academy has kept us safe within the bubble of our skill where we rarely have to fail. But writing, like most successful ventures, is a process of failing until you succeed.

I think one of the reasons a full 50% of PhD students drop out is because writing an original manuscript like a dissertation requires them to fail and it feels indescribably yucky.

You are not going to complete a dissertation without some version of what feels like failing and when you’re not used to it “failing” can feel like dying.

I put failing in quotes there because what grad students count as failure often wouldn’t count as failure in a different workplace.

I passed my prospectus defense with revisions and I counted that as failure.

Every time my advisor gave me back a draft with extensive notes I felt like I had failed.

If I hadn’t been so used to turning things in and getting “A”s on the first try I might have had a better adjusted sense that revision is a normal, inevitable, vital part of writing.

In my workplace now it’s normal for most projects to go through several stages of revision and it’s not failure; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just work.

Beyond that, most graduate students I know, particularly those in the humanities, hold themselves to an impossible, invisible standard known or cared about by no one but themselves. That standard is often simply, “be perfect.”

No one can be perfect but when you’ve always been close to perfect, an “A” student, being less than perfect can feel like failure. When the only way forward is through imperfection and failure and you’re terrified of failure then you may find yourself standing still. I’ve known people who have stood still, doing nothing on their dissertations, for years. I know people who have left their graduate programs rather than face the sort of failure inherent in the writing process. If you want to finish your dissertation then you have to give yourself the freedom to fail and you have to learn how to fail forward.

Write Badly. Write as badly as you can. Instead of worrying about how to write a good sentence or how to succinctly state the significance of the problem do those things as badly as you can. It’s always easier to edit than to generate original content. The most intimidating part of a blank page is the pressure we put on ourselves to write something brilliant. Set that aside. Write as badly as you can. You can always make it beautiful later.

Writing Is Not Cooking. My aunt taught me that, when I was cooking, I should always add less salt to a recipe than I thought was warranted because, while I could always add more at a later stage, I couldn’t take the salt out once it was in the dish. This is a good principle in cooking and a terrible principle in writing. You can always go back and erase what you’ve written if you decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit. Don’t stop to think or critique your work while you’re producing it. Don’t worry or wonder if what you’re writing is good. Just let it all flow out and trust your inner editor to clean it up later.

Create a”Pieces” Document. I suggest doing this for every part of the dissertation: each chapter, the introduction, even the acknowledgements. A pieces document is an intellectual security blanket. When you know that a sentence or a paragraph or a section doesn’t quite fit where you want it to but you don’t want to delete it because, damn it, you worked hard on those words, then you can copy and paste it into your “Pieces” document. Chances are you will not actually go back and use these pieces in your dissertation. If you’ve made the decision to take them out then they probably need to be out. However, reading through my old “pieces” document has often worked as a great way to get over writer’s block.

Follow Bunny Trails. One of the most defeating experiences as a writer is when you spend all day (or week or month or year) chasing down a lead. Sometimes all you have is the name of a scholar who said something you know would tie together your whole argument in this one place. Sometimes you remember the gist of what was said but not who said it or where. Sometimes, you find what you’re looking for but once you find it it’s not obvious why you were so sure it would fit. Sometimes, you spend all day looking and you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either way, at the end of these days it’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself for wasting so much time chasing down a bunny trail. But those bunny trails are actually an essential part of the writing experience and help prepare you for your dissertation defense. In your search for whatever piece of scholarship you are looking for you are acquainting yourself with the literature of your field. If you find the thing you were looking for and it doesn’t fit then you’ll be prepared to articulate to your committee or a job search committee why you rejected it because you made a conscious decision to do so. Mostly, you have to trust that you’re not an idiot and if you have a hunch that you need to hunt something down then that work will pay off sometime, somewhere. It always does.

This is the last entry in our September series on letting go of perfection and embracing progress.

For October we’ll be focusing on how to spend less time teaching and create more time for your dissertation without short changing your students. This is one of our favorite topics and we can’t wait to dive into it with you!

What You Can Do. And What You Can’t.

Dear Readers,

We have reached the end of our series on abusive PhD advisors in the humanities (See here, here, here, here, and here.) We here at abd2phd are humbled by the positive feedback this series has received and are glad that it has seemed to be helpful to so many people.

Thank you for your notes and comments of encouragement along the way.

As I’ve mentioned before, writing this series has been particularly difficult, although that’s why I’m also so proud of it.

What has been difficult about this series is that there are so few solutions to offer.

Our normal format here is to identify a problem, explain the problem, and offer at least one solution.

Unfortunately, with abusive advisors there is often little that can be done because of the vast power disparities between advisor and advisee.

I’ve seen this play out several times with humanities graduate students and it is absolutely heartbreaking.

A lot of the mechanisms set up to protect students from bad behavior by their professors are designed to work for undergraduate students. Because graduate students exist somewhere in a liminal space between university employee and student we often don’t get good information on how to really be either which is a whole separate series in itself.

In this series so far we’ve tried to cover ways to help avoid becoming entangled with an abusive advisor. However, as we’ve said from the start, abusers are often quite charismatic when they want to be and some of them will promise you the world. Too many graduate students have done all the right things in the process of vetting a PhD advisor only to find out near the end of their process that their supportive, charismatic advisor, has transformed into an abusive bully.

Unfortunately, the later it is in the process of your PhD the fewer options you have (which is EXACTLY the reason that the most malicious, most savvy abusers will wait until you’re ABD or halfway done with your dissertation to reveal their true colors).

Today’s post is for those students who find themselves in that situation. You did the best you could, you selected the best advisor for you and your project and now, they’ve transformed from your greatest asset to your greatest liability.

The good news is that all is not lost. There are still things you can do to mitigate the damage to yourself and your project. At the same time, it’s important to be realistic about how much power a PhD advisor really has over your life and while you still have options there are some things you definitely can’t do.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Here are the things you cannot do:

  1. Make your advisor someone else. One of the biggest lies abusers tell is that their abusive behavior is your fault. It is not. Abuse is always the abusers fault. I’ve seen so many graduate students tell me horror stories of their abusive advisor and then say, “Well, it’s my fault because I didn’t [normal behavior here].” Abusers often contend that if you were perfect then they wouldn’t be abusive. In reality no one is perfect. They choose to be abusive because they have their own deep damage that they’re not reckoning with. You cannot ever perform well enough to change your abuser into someone else. That is work they have to do on their own.
  2. Be perfect. This is a corollary of the above point. You can’t be perfect and attempts to be perfect are the biggest impediment to success, especially academic success. You can never read all the things. You can’t create an argument that is beyond critique. You can’t be so perfect that your abuser will stop being abusive. You are not the cause of their behavior and your perfection will not change it.
  3. Change your advisor. This is a hard one to accept. While there are exceptions, the later you are in the process the more difficult it is to change your advisor. This is because of the weird internal politics of academia. The biggest impediment to changing your advisor is finding a new one. I’ve seen students with abusive advisors at institutions where there is, literally, no one else with the research background to take over their project. I’ve also seen students at institutions where there are plenty of people who could take over the project but . . . won’t. Why? Well, you work with your advisor, on average, for seven years. Her fellow faculty may work with her for decades. In a perfect world it wouldn’t be this way but very few faculty want to jeopardize their professional working relationship for the next thirty years to stand up for you. This sense of self-preservation plays out in other ways as well. I’ve seen cases where the departmental administrators, like the Director of Graduate Studies or Assistant Chair, encourage students to stay with bad advisors (through gaslighting or victim blaming) because they know it would be very, very bad for the department if the student proceeded with their very justifiable case against their advisor.
  4. Control your reputation. This is another hard one. One of the reasons graduate students don’t stand up for themselves to abusive advisors (other than the vast chasm of power differences) is because they’re afraid that their advisor will ruin their professional reputation. It’s not that this fear is irrational, but rather that it’s out of your control. If your abusive advisor is threatening (explicitly or implicitly) to ruin your professional reputation unless you comply with whatever the fuck it is they want you to do the odds are that they’ve already started to destroy your reputation. I know, I know, it’s not a hopeful message. Here’s the thing though: you can’t control your abuser’s behavior and that includes what they say about you when you’re not around.

Now for the good news! There are things you can do:

  1. Be Great. Even though you can’t control your abuser’s behavior you can control your own. You can continue to be great at what you do, to present yourself professionally on campus and at conferences, and so on. It’s hard to know that you don’t have total control over your professional reputation and may be at the mercy of someone with a vendetta who doesn’t mind lying but you have to trust that the truth will out. A lot of PhD students, when they start to fear that their advisor might be ruining their reputation, don’t want to face the broader profession at conferences or other professional meetings but this is the exact opposite of what you should do. If you fear that your advisor is maligning you then you need to show up and be great. It’s difficult beyond words but it’s the only thing you can do to regain control over your reputation.
  2. Get help. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you’re stuck with an abusive advisor one of the very best things you can do for yourself is get help. Get all the help you can. See a professional counselor if you can. Spend time with a support network of people both in and outside graduate school to remind you that you are not the person your advisor says you are. You can check into your institution’s CAPS program. You can check out 7 Cups. However you get help is fine as long as you get help.
  3. Don’t listen to your advisor. At least, not about who you are. If you’re advisor is telling you that you are stupid, incompetent, or don’t deserve to be in a PhD program DO. NOT. LISTEN. TO. THEM. If you’re past the point where you can change advisors and are stuck with an abuser do whatever it takes to remind yourself that you are smart, talented, and hardworking. One of the things that academic abusers have going for them is a semi-captive audience who have spent decades training themselves to listen to experts. Then you have your own personal expert confirming all your worst fears about yourself. Its a devastatingly toxic mix. You will want to listen to them. Do Not. (And forgive yourself on the days that you do anyway.)
  4. See your ombudsperson. Your university has one. I absolutely promise you. If you’re at an R1 university (and you probably are if you’re a PhD student) then they probably have an ombudsperson (or two or three) just for graduate students. The ombudsperson works for the graduate school and their entire job is to make sure that graduate students are treated fairly. Different ombudspersons do this with varying levels of effectiveness, but if you have an abusive advisor and can’t get out of the situation yourself it may be worth a visit to your ombudsperson. If your school has more than one take some time to discreetly ask around about who might be better for your issue.
  5. Leave. The decision on whether or not to leave academia has become a genre unto itself so I won’t belabor it here. In the context of this series I will add my own two sentences. Part of what is so traumatizing about abusive advisors is that many PhD students have invested a great deal of their time and their soul into a profession they thought would keep them safe and happy. It is possible to have a fulfilling life outside of academia.

Go forth and be great and always remember that we are here for you!

Surviving Summer: Try Something

As we’ve discussed earlier in our series on surviving summer, humanities PhDs often trade money for time. That is, summers for PhD students are often unpaid but full of “free” time.

Up to this point, we’ve covered a few ways to save money and reduce your cost of living over the summer (see here, here, and here). In this post, we want to switch gears a bit and focus on ways to maximize your time.

Summer is a great time to try out new routines and find new ways to be productive.

The important thing to remember is that, when the term starts, it will absolutely blow up even the best summer routine. That’s not the important thing. The important thing is to experiment with new routines to find what makes you feel your best and most productive. That way, when your semester starts to feel like it’s evening out, you can begin to incorporate some of the elements of your summer routine that you liked.

In particular, I like to try out new planners over the summer.

Two of my favorites are the Panda Planner and the Passion Planner.

(NOTE: THIS IS NOT A SPONSORED POST BUT IT COULD BE. PLEASE HIT ME UP PANDA PLANNER AND PASSION PLANNER.)

I like different things about each of them.

For day-to-day planning, the Panda Planner works best for my brain. I like that every day gets a full two-page spread with different sections including tasks, schedule, priorities, gratitude, and even exercise.

In the final semester of my dissertation, when I was teaching or TAing three classes and churning out chapter revisions a couple of times a month my Panda Planner kept me sane.

I would sit down with my Panda every evening and write out my tasks and schedule for the upcoming day with all of the things I knew had to get done. The next morning, when I got to the office, I would sit down with my coffee and decide on my five biggest priorities for the day as well as my focus for the day (e.g. productivity, self-care, patience, health, grading, and so on).

What I *love* about this system is that it scaffolds the day’s priorities in a way that helps me be gracious to myself. For instance, maybe I don’t get all of the things on my task list done on a day but I do accomplish my Big 5 Priorities. That’s still a win–I prioritized those things for a reason and got them done. Hooray!

By the same token, maybe there’s a day that I don’t get my tasks or my Big 5 accomplished but I stay true to my focus by making extra time for self-care or to meet with students outside of class. That still feels like a win because it reminds me that, while productivity ebbs and flows, I was true to my values that day.

If you want some sample pages to try a Panda Planner and see if it’s right for you then you can submit your email here.

The Passion Planner has a different daily/weekly schedule. One week is spread out over two pages with a schedule for each day as well as a separate section for top priorities, both personal and professional, and a dedicated space for creativity.

Personally, I like having a dedicated daily priorities section rather than a weekly one. My adhd brain often can’t see what the priorities will be at the end of the week. When I try to, I get lost in the weeds or overwhelmed, so the daily priorities works better for me.

For those of you with decent executive function, however, the Passion Planner is a wonderful option.

What I really, really love about the Passion Planner is the passion planning system it walks you through. The Passion Planning system helps you decide on what you want your long-term goals to be and make a plan to achieve them.

It’s particularly good, in my opinion, for multi-passionate entrepreneurs. If you haven’t heard that term “multi-passionate entrepreneurs” is a fancy term for people who are passionate about multiple simultaneous projects. This category fits most humanities graduate students I know who are passionate about at least one research project, a creative pursuit, teaching, and activism. Oh yeah, and on top of that most of us are trying to stay reasonably healthy.

The Passion Planner is dedicated to making space for all of those aspects of your life and has a great system for walking you through how to do it.

If you wanna try out a Passion Plan or a day or week of using the Passion Planner you can download pages here.

Both planners include dedicated spaces for gratitude which is excellent.

Both planners have blank pages to take notes though the Passion Planner has more and includes graph paper which makes my nerd heart happy.

If you’re into aesthetics the Panda Planner is minimalist. Different versions of the planner come in different colors but they’re all matte covers with the imprint of a panda.

The Passion Planner is beautiful and each week includes a different inspirational quote.

If neither of these planners feel right for you then I would recommend checking out Day Designer. Like the two above, Day Designer has a host of free printables so you can try before you buy. Day Designer planners are expensive but they’ve collaborated with Blue Sky to offer a modified Day Designer at Target for a much more affordable price.

Commit 30 is a planner specifically designed for academics (yay!) and you can print out a trial version here.

Do you have a favorite planner or planning method that’s helped you be productive?

Share it in the comments!

Dealing With An Abusive Advisor

Names have power. Interdisciplinary scholars know this. This is why our programs and our dissertations exist. If names did not matter than American Studies would not exist with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences. American Studies does exist, with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences, precisely because it is inadequate to call the work we do “history” or “media studies” or “political science.” While all of those fields play a part in this dissertation, they are not, individually or collectively, what this dissertation is. This is an American Studies dissertation and it can be an American Studies dissertation because scholars acknowledge that names matter for precision and intellectual honesty. This is doubly true for interdisciplinary feminist scholars since so many of the victories of the modern feminist movement have been focused on the mutually constitutive nature of language and lived experience. The terms “sexual harassment” and “marital rape” did not create new phenomena. Women had experienced these things for centuries. Naming them did allow women to voice their experience, connect with other women, and work for social and legal change. The establishment of Women’s Studies programs across the US, acknowledging that something about women’s lives and history might be worth studying, was a revolutionary concept which continues to shape higher education in the United States. The fact that many of the original Women’s Studies programs are changing to new names like “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” or “Feminist Studies” goes beyond re-branding to indicate substantial changes in ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, feminism, and the academy.

The above is a portion of my dissertation that my advisor demanded I cut from the final version submitted to my committee. I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, I like it, and I wanted it to see the light of day somewhere. Second, and more importantly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge how healing it is to talk about problems openly and honestly.

Our series this summer on abusive advisors has been an attempt to do just that–to name a problem that thrives in silence.

However, while I deeply, deeply believe in the power of naming it is a necessary but not sufficient part of the healing process.

We also need strategies for how to protect ourselves, particularly in the case of abusive advisors.

At the beginning of this series we spent some time talking about exactly why abusive advisors can be so devastating to their PhD students. Because of the incredible amounts of power that advisors have over the lives and livelihoods of their PhD students it is easy to feel trapped by an abusive advisor. I would argue that abusive advisors purposely pick students who are less likely to know how to navigate the system effectively. I’ve you’ve been paying attention to the tags for this series you’ll notice I’ve tagged many of these posts as “first-generation.” Although I don’t have any data on it I thing first-fen PhDs are more likely to be victims of abusive advisors because we often don’t know what “normal” is for this process.

The hard truth is that your options for dealing with an abusive advisor are often very limited.

The very best thing you can do is get rid of an abusive advisor as soon as possible.

This doesn’t mean that you should wait for your advisor to do something definitively wrong or abusive. Remember, abusers often don’t work like that. They are masters at plausible deniability. If you have reason to think that your advisor may be abusive it may be time to start looking around for another advisor.

The most natural time to do this is as soon as possible after your prospectus exam. You can thank your advisor for seeing you through the exam process, explain that your work is going in a different direction and X faculty member’s work is a better fit for this new direction.

This is a fairly common practice and allows everyone to part ways while maintaining public civility.

If, as is often the case, you are much further along in your dissertation process and changing your advisor or adding a co-chair isn’t an option for you there are some other things you can do to protect yourself.

1. Record all in-person meetings.

First, look into whether or not your state is a one-party consent state. If they are, this means you can legally record things without letting the other party know that they are being recorded. After my advisor told me, out of the blue, that she didn’t buy my main argument I recorded all subsequent meetings up to and including my dissertation defense and the post-defense meeting with my committee. I lived in a one-party consent state so I would take my laptop to meetings with my advisor, not unusual, and when I would pull up a document to take notes I would also pull up my camera and start recording a video.

If you live in a two-party consent state you will have to get their permission to record, but you can often get around this by asking “Do you mind if I record this meeting so I can make sure my notes are accurate later?” It’s a hard request to say “no” to but even if your advisor does deny your request to record the meeting you can use step two.

2. Send an email after all meetings.

After every meeting you should send your advisor an email in this template:

Dear [Advisor Name],

Thank you for your time today! I appreciate your insights on moving my project forward. 

Based on our meeting today I understand my immediate action items to be X, Y, and Z. 

I expect to have the draft/revisions/deliverable to you on [DATE]. If any issues come up I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as possible.

Warm Regards,

[YOUR NAME]

Even if you don’t have an abusive or negligent advisor it’s good to get into the habit of sending this email after every meeting. Misunderstandings happen–it’s just part of being human. This email helps make sure that you and your advisor are on the same page. If you leave a meeting thinking that the most important thing to do is “X” and your advisor thinks the most important thing you need to do is “A” this email is a great opportunity to clarify that.

3. Find a counselor.

I’ve interviewed dozens of graduate students about what the biggest challenges they face in completing their PhDs are. Many, many, many people said that they knew they needed professional counseling but that there were too many barriers to access. These included a lack of time, lack of transparency in the process of seeking out counseling, long waitlists to see a counselor, and confusion about what their graduate student insurance would pay for.

I know that these are all real barriers to seeking care.

I don’t make a lot of promises on this site. Like any good teacher, I offer suggestions, complications, and, hopefully, new ways of saying.

Let me break with that pattern now and make you a promise, a guarantee if you will:

The time you invest in setting up regular mental health care Will. Pay. Dividends.

I thanked my own therapist and psychiatrist in the acknowledgements section of my dissertation with the following

Jen Walsh, in terms of sheer hours spent, has probably spent more time on this dissertation than anyone else. She has kept me sane and kept me whole and kept me going. She has my deepest thanks. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Troy for listening, for understanding, for naming my anxiety disorder. You can’t treat what you don’t name and this process would have been so much more painful without her gracious help.

I won’t say that I couldn’t have completed my dissertation without the help of my mental health team but I know that without them it would have been a much longer, much more painful process.

Beyond that, I think my excellent mental health team helped me transition from academic life to post-academic life.

I’m passionate about graduate students taking care of their mental health. I could talk about it for weeks and we have a series coming up on it later this year. For now, let me just remind you of the most important thing: Your research doesn’t exist without you. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your project.

One resource I’ve heard good things about is 7 Cups which offers trained listeners for free and online therapy for under $40 a week.

Later in the week we’ll be talking about other actions you can take to help yourself and your career when faced with an abusive or negligent advisor.

 

Surviving Summer: Eat Something

Welcome back to our series on surviving summer on the low or no income of a humanities graduate student. A lot of our previous posts have focused on food (here, here, and here). This probably isn’t surprising. You need to eat. I need to eat. We all need to eat. When we’re looking at cutting costs in a budget where all luxuries have been cut out long-ago we start trying to cut food costs. We can’t do much to change our rent or mortgage. We can try and cut utilities but food is our most constant cost and the one we are in the most control of.

The following is my Number 1 tip to grad students over the summer:

USE YOUR LOCAL FOOD PANTRIES.

Seriously.

Use them.

Find out where they are, when they are, and what you need to bring with you then go and get food.

I am passionate about this subject because during my PhD I helped establish a campus food pantry. I was a co-advisor to a group of students who was establishing the food pantry and, as the only grad student on the team, I was tasked with reaching out to graduate students to get them to use the food pantry.

All of the graduate students I reached out to said the same thing: I don’t want to use the food pantry because I don’t want to take food away from someone who needs it more. 

This view is a misunderstanding of how food pantries actually work.

This idea, that if you take food from a food pantry there will be less food for someone else, is based on the belief that food pantries are like pie: there is a finite amount of pie/pantry and if you take some then there is less pie/pantry for other people.

Food pantries don’t operate like pie. They operate like creativity. In the words of Dr. Angelou, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” 

The more you use a food pantry the more money that pantry is eligible to request in add from corporations or grants. The more aid they receive, the more food they can buy. The more food they have, the more people they can serve.

In actuality, the more you use a food pantry the more food they have. It is the exact opposite of pie. cake-food-fork-890574

Many colleges and universities have opened their own food pantries to server their students (this is the type of pantry I was a part of). These pantries are often open over the summer but see a sharp drop in clients because graduate students don’t want to use them and most undergraduates are gone.

This is particularly frustrating because a lot of charitable organizations give fresh food and vegetables over the summer and if no one comes to pick those perishable items up they go bad and get thrown out. This is particularly frustrating to those of us who have to cart the boxes of now-bad vegetables and fruits to the trash bin.

Please fight food waste and use your local food pantries.

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve used “pantries”, plural, throughout this post.

That’s because different food pantries specialize in different things. Many campus food pantries specialize in non-perishable items: Peanut butter, pancake mix, mac and cheese, canned veggies, ramen, tuna, and so on.

In contrast, community food pantries often have a broader selection that can include fresh eggs, meat, and dairy that needs to be used shortly after it’s donated.

Before you go to the pantry you’ll want to check them out online. Questions to ask are:

  1. What days are they open?
  2. What hours?
  3. Do they serve different populations or different food stuffs on different days?
  4. Do I need to bring my own bags?
  5. Do I need to bring anything with me? (Many food pantries operate on an honor system requiring you only to show up–some campus food pantries ask you to show a campus ID. This just helps the pantries compile the numbers for how many people they are serving which helps them apply for grants and things).

If you want to find out if your campus has a food pantry check out this map from the Colleges & Universities Food Bank Alliance. This map isn’t exhaustive. For instance, my current campus has a food pantry that is not on this list–but it can be a good place to start. If you don’t see your campus listed on this map you might want to check your campus website or email someone in student services. I know as grad students we often don’t interact with student services as they are more geared at undergraduates but they’ve got the hook-up on a lot of good stuff.

In conclusion, please, please, PLEASE, use your local food pantries over the summer to make your food budget more manageable and to help increase their ability to serve your community.

The Absent-Minded Abuser

We just completed a series on what 15 abuse tactics can look like in academia. (Feel free to check it out here, here, and here.)

I wanted to include a special post about The Academic Bumbler. This post is derived from Lili Loofbourow’s brilliant piece “The myth of the male bumbler.” You should absolutely read the whole piece if you haven’t but for our topic today the most important part is the following:

The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

Loofbourow was writing about men with long histories of sexual assault who use the idea that they are not malicious–just socially awkward–to generate sympathy for them and discredit their victims despite the fact that there actions are often incredibly strategic.

I vividly remember reading Loobourow’s piece the first time because I shared it to Facebook with a long, rambling post about my own experiences with an academic bumbler who, but for my own self-advocacy, would have cost me my career several times over. A few minutes or a few hours later, I don’t remember, a dear friend messaged me privately asking, “Are you talking about X?”

Reader, I was, indeed, talking about X.

It turns out I was not the only victim of his “bumbling.”

Then again, bumblers rarely have just one victim. It’s devilishly clever that the bumbler’s alibi actually requires he has multiple victims.  A key part of creating the image of a bumbler is leaving a trail of wreckage behind him. After all, too few victims and it might start to seem like they’re targets.

giphy-1

In Loofbourow’s piece she talks about how men weaponize the cultural image of them as socially helpless.

In academia, both men and women have access to the image of the absent-minded professor and I’ve seen both successfully weaponize it to keep certain students down not through obvious malice, but through continual bumbling.

What does the academic bumbler look like?

Well, let me tell you about mine.

Bumbler 1, who was in a position to do so, promised me that they had filed the appropriate paperwork with the college to ensure that I was ABD. Five months later, I got an email from Bumbler 2 saying that they had forgotten to file the paperwork so the college had no record of me passing my prelims. I got this email because when Bumbler 2 went to rectify this mistake they were unable to do so because of a mistake I had made in filing my Plan of Study and could I please fix the problem with my POS so that they could file the prospectus paperwork on my behalf?

Notice the subtle shifting of blame to me for making a mistake in my Plan of Study and the lack of responsibility for taking five months to file paperwork that should, in theory, be filed within a week.

In the meantime, someone, perhaps Bumbler 1 or someone who worked for them, had removed me from the departmental email list. The same email list in which the annual request for TA positions was sent out each year.

I never got that email so I never knew that I had missed the date to request a TA position. (I was in absentia due to family crisis at the time so I didn’t have means of finding out about these things in person.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when, in a conversation with Bumbler 2, she casually let slip that I had no TA appointment because I had never requested one.

I panicked. I contacted a lot of people and found out that I had been removed from the important email list. I scrambled to get funding for the upcoming year.

Bumbler 2, in our next conversation, then told me that I needed to do a better job of advocating for myself.

Bumbler 1, I feel I should note, did apologize for not noticing that I had been removed from the email list and, consequently, had missed my opportunity to get departmental funding. It was, as they said, their responsibility to notice such things. The apology was nice. The year of writing I lost because I was working two jobs was not.

These series of events, with Bumbler 1 and Bumbler 2 purposefully or accidentally working in tandem, was by far the worst. I think I *still* have stress weight from it.

There were, of course, other incidents.

There was the time that an unnamed Bumbler suggested that, since I had made significant changes to my prospectus after passing (with revisions) that we get my committee together to update everyone on the changes. I love to talk about my work so a chat with my committee to update them on changes sounded lovely. When I got there, however, it was a surprise second prospectus defense which I was unprepared for because, you know, I didn’t know it was happening.

There was the time when Bumbler 2, who was on my committee, told me in January of the year I defended (so, you know, after seeing many, many drafts) that they just didn’t believe my argument. Like, my whole dissertation argument.

When I asked what part of it they didn’t believe and for examples, they showed me a claim they said had no support. I asked about the three separate quotes from different, (relevant) prominent figures I had just after that claim and what other type of support I should use. Bumbler 2 had no idea what quotes I was talking about.

Oops! A bumble they forgot to read that, or didn’t remember it, or some shit. Never mind that they were prepared to sit there and tell me to my face that my dissertation didn’t make any sense–an action with enormous long-term consequences for my financial and professional future.

Dealing with a bumbler can be incredibly difficult.

In the abuse scenarios we shared previously the abuser relies heavily on isolation and shame to keep you from talking about what the abuser is doing because if you did talk about it your support system would tell you that what the abuser is doing is wrong.

The Bumbler is . . . different.

As Loofbourow notes, the Bumbler’s alibi that they are just absent-minded is at odds with the rest of their lives. Loofbourow uses the example of Woody Allen, Bumbler extraordinaire, who has built his career on portraying himself as awkward and absent-minded despite the fact that he is organized and disciplined enough to produce a film a year.

If you take a hard look at academic Bumblers you’ll see the same thing. Though they often deploy the stereotype of the absent-minded professor as an alibi if you look at the office or the CV of the Bumbler you will often find an unusually organized office and a stellar CV that speaks to a very disciplined and organized scholar.

Like all abusers, Bumblers choose their victims with great care. Like all abusers, Bumblers can be extremely charming when they want to be.

In the case of Bumbler 1 mentioned above, some discreet questions revealed the fact that they only ever “bumbled” with students who entered the program the year before they took up their position.

I was in this group of students which is why I experienced the bumbling. What was unique about this group of students is that none of us had a permanent contract with the university. I was a typical model. I was admitted to the university for the PhD program but was not offered funding through the program. Instead, I was offered a tuition waiver and insurance if I could find funding through another department. This meant that my contract with the university, such as it was, was on a year-by-year, appointment-by-appointment basis. I had no long-term security and if I was unable to secure a position as a TA or through a fellowship then it wasn’t the department’s fault that I wasn’t in the program–it was just an unfortunate circumstance. Everyone in my cohort was in a similar position which meant that we were in a particularly vulnerable position. And every person in my cohort new this person as a Bumbler when it came to finding funding for us and our research opportunities or filing our paperwork in a timely manner.

In contrast, I had dear, dear friends who were in cohorts after me, when the program had mandated multi-year contracts with students. Essentially, if you were admitted to the PhD program you would be funded some way for X number of years. They never met The Bumbler.

When those of us who had had our careers jeopardized by the Bumbler’s bumbling tried to talk to our friends we were gently gaslit: Surely it wasn’t malicious! It’s not personal! They didn’t mean it! Even such a busy, important person must make mistakes sometimes! So sorry it happened to you but don’t read too much into it! 

The worst thing about a Bumbler is that no one believes the bumbles are intentional. Even if you aren’t isolated socially it can feel isolating because it feels like even your support system won’t believe you, let alone advocate for you.

Abusers, all abusers, work by making you feel helpless. In the case of what we might consider the classic abuser, the type of abuser who uses the tactics discussed in our previous series on abusers, there are actually things you can do to help yourself. With the Bumbler things are a little more complicated.

The Bumbler works by convincing you and everyone else that they aren’t targeting you for abuse. They are always extremely careful to make sure that the things they do to hamstring your career seem like unfortunate accidents rather than careful targeting of victims.

The reason it has taken so long to publish this post is because it has been an agony. It has been an agony to rethink what I want through at the hands of my own Bumblers. Aside from the professional toll of the Bumblers, which can be immense, the personal cost is . . .

I spent a lot of time in therapy discussing my own Bumblers–discussing how stuck I felt and how angry and sad I was. My therapist was amazing and I would not have gotten through my dissertation without her. However, because the Bumbler is often careful to never do anything actionable even people who want to advocate for you just cannot.

Personally speaking, my Bumblers have left me with a sense of ambiguous loss and I think one of the reasons this post has been so damn hard to write is because I haven’t yet grieved what happened to me. I don’t even know how to grieve it because, in the end, my Bumblers were also instrumental to getting my PhD no matter how much harm they caused me along the way.

Perhaps that’s the worst thing about a Bumbler. At some point, I had to put aside my (very justifiable) anger, stuff my grief down deep, and just work through it. To do that, to get through it, I agreed to live by the lie that they were just Bumblers, to take more responsibility for things that never should have been my responsibility in the first place and live through it.

 

Surviving Summer: Share Something

One time, in another life, I was listening to a husband and wife missionary team talk about how they saved money to go on their mission trips and one of the things they said has always stayed with me as a very practical piece of life advice:

If I’ve got beans and you’ve got rice then we’ve got a meal.

I lived by this quote throughout my time in grad school. The year after my MA, when I was struggling to find work, I began hosting a weekly potluck. The potluck was a way for me to stay in touch with my grad school friends and to make food stretch. As a PhD student, over the long summers with no pay, I again held weekly potlucks as a way to stretch food and stay in touch with friends.

In a capitalist society there aren’t a lot of spaces where a body can just exist without spending money. When budgets are tight staying in touch with friends can seem daunting–do we go out for coffee? Seems like a luxury. Get breakfast? We can make breakfast at home. Go for a walk? Maybe, but it’s hot outside.

What I love about a summer potluck is that it provides a way to hang out and catch up with friends while helping, rather than hurting, your budget.

There are a lot of ways to do a summer potluck. You can take turns providing the protein (often the most expensive part of the meal) or hosting. You can do a brunch potluck or a dinner potluck.

For a brunch potluck I love this baked oatmeal from Budget Bytes. It’s delicious, filling, and super cheap. (If y’all aren’t following Budget Bytes you totally should–many of my favorite grad school recipes come from there.)

Last week I shared this recipe for homemade taco seasoning. If y’all can pool your spice collections or invest in a spice library then you can split the cost of a few cans of black beans, a bag of rice, some cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, onions–whatever you like. Individually the ingredients are cheap and you can make a huge portion to send some home with everyone. It’s also pretty delicious and filling.

I happen to be allergic to potatoes, but if you can eat them a baked potato bar is a great summer potluck. Potatoes, it turns out, have almost all the nutrients a human needs to survive and, of course, they’re super cheap. A 5lb bag of potatoes, with every guess bringing their favorite baked potato toppings, is a lot of food and a good time.

If you eat meat, a hot dog bar can be fun as well. They’re normally cheap but they tend to go on sale in summer so they’re even cheaper. Again, one or two people split the cost for the hot dogs and everyone else brings their favorite toppings.

Let us know in the comments if you have a favorite potluck or big batch item to help make your food budget stretch over the summer!