Since learning about Will Moore‘s death, I’ve been going through the motions. It’s odd because I wasn’t particularly close to Will. We were at Florida State at the same time in the early 2000s, where he was a professor and I was a PhD student. He taught my research design course in Fall 2001, which was my very first graduate class. Will was interested in pushing students to be the best they could be. I wish, that as a 21 year old graduate student, I had been able to recognize what he was doing. Instead, he intimidated the crap out of me. He called me into his office after class one day to encourage me to contribute more. I remember him telling me that my male counterparts were just blowing hot air (I think he actually said that they like to hear the sounds of their own voices) and that he knew I had something more to add than what was already being said. It made me speak up more, but my horrible imposter syndrome made me shrink back from any mentoring by Will. Clearly, he was a fantastic mentor to many of my contemporaries at Florida State and beyond. But, Florida State being what it was/is, we were truly a community of scholars. While I never took another class with Will, he was at every one of my practice conference presentations and job talks. The faculty at Florida State set the bar high for having a supportive community of scholars in the workplace. I still haven’t found a place that comes close to that level of community since I left Tallahassee ten and a half years ago.
And yet, I find myself grieving. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. Cullen Hendrix’s recent post and Christian Davenport’s blog post summarizes a lot of why I am feeling this way. It’s fantastic that we’re having these conversations about mental health in academia, especially in political science, but how long will these conversations go on? Will they just be conversations? Will they lead to action? How long until we just go back to the same old, same old?
I’ve had a lot of regrets, a lot of things I wish I could do again: I wish I had travelled more while I was in grad school. I wish I had gone to more happy hours. I wish that I didn’t question myself at every turn. I wish that I knew how to relax and enjoy myself with my contemporaries. I know now that a lot of what held me back was depression and anxiety. Sometimes we call it imposter syndrome, but, as time has gone on, I realize that it’s my anxiety manifesting itself into some succinct “acceptable” term we use in academia. It’s that little voice that makes you wonder if you’re ever going to be found out, if you’re not as smart as others in the room, if you’re researching the right thing.
(Tien Frogget, 2015)
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’ve experienced things that have reinforced what I see through my anxiety . For instance, a short interview at APSA while I was on the market played out like this: two senior men, very well known in the discipline, looking through me to see what else was going on in the room while I was answering their questions. (My anxiety says “They only agreed to this short interview because of who you know and who is on your committee. You’re not good enough to end up at University of X.”) Or the number of times I’ve been at conferences talking to friends who then introduce me to their friends, only for them to look at my name tag, see my large state school under my name, and then continue a conversation like I am not there. (My anxiety says “You aren’t worth knowing since you work at a large state school that is better known for its football team than its academic rigor.”) Or a conference discussant giving you advice in a “break you down to build you up” sort of way… or not giving comments to you at all because they felt another paper was that much more important. (My anxiety says “Your paper was crap. Throw it out. It will never be published. Don’t even try.”)
Maybe I need a thicker skin, which is the advice that many people have given to me over the years. Maybe academia isn’t for me. Except, I know that isn’t the solution either, as I truly love what I do. Or maybe, just maybe, there are more of us that have these feelings than not. On the flip side of the posturing that goes on at conferences, there is also an opportunity to find a space for yourself. After a very tumultuous time in my career, I began searching out new opportunities at ISA. I remember going to panels sponsored by the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) section where they discussed “circles of niceness” and “academic assholery”. This clicked for me. I don’t want to be an asshole. Assholes make me crawl deep into my shell. I give criticism, but in a constructive way. Particularly, because I want people to succeed. I want to value people for what they bring to the discipline, because we are not cookie cutter academics. I want to value people and their work, not based on what school they are at, their pedigree, or where they publish, but because we excel at different things and we bring a different perspective to these topics. I also want people to know that they are not alone in these feelings.
The unfortunate truth is that those who need to check their privilege (and/or academic jerk status) are probably never going to read this post. Or, if they do, they’ll write it off to me being bitter or sad that I am [insert whatever insult here]. I’ve been a part of a number of discussions over the past few years about changing our professional culture, and the truth is that change can only come when we start convincing those in power positions that change can benefit them too. And, why would they? Like Cullen said, as long as we continue to reward those behaviors that allow this culture to dominate, there is no incentive to change.
Last month, in Baltimore, I had organized a panel on self-care that, because of a few mix-ups, had been left off the original ISA program. I pushed back and, luckily, the program chair was able to find a spot for us albeit at 8AM on Saturday morning. Four people were on the panel (due to the scheduling mix-up, some others had to step down to present their substantive research) and two people in the audience. Two. And, honestly, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had at an ISA because it was a space for us to know we weren’t alone in our struggles in the discipline, whether it was due to stress, anxiety, departmental cultures, or chronic illnesses. I don’t say this to self-promote, but for others to realize that there are those of us who have been working towards changing our professional culture prior to Will’s untimely death. And we will continue to do so. Please join us in our efforts so this conversation does not become a soft hum once again.