[Read Part I here.]
Falling into Academia
It took me ten years to finish my bachelor’s degree. I was full time for a little while, then took several years off, travelled, worked, and wondered what do to with my life. During the entire bachelor and then magisterial degrees of full time course loads, I also worked at least forty hours a week in the healthcare field doing administration. I took out government-backed student loans to pay for tuition, and one for a computer, because the banks wouldn’t even give me a credit card, much less a student loan to support myself.
I was an alien. An avid reader since I was girl, I had no problem with comprehension of the ideas—I was rarely confused about what was being taught—but I didn’t know how to write an essay, or construct an argument, or even study properly for memory tests (I still struggle with this). Many of my earlier papers had comments such as, ‘This is a good idea, but you didn’t quite argue for it.” Or “You have a unique perspective here, and the paper is well-written but entirely unstructured and therefore also confusing.” Finally, by chance of taking an elective that fit my schedule, I registered for a class called “How to Write an Essay,” and suddenly I was a straight A student, and was being encouraged to apply for a master’s degree. I’d never thought about it before. But I was beginning to love writing. The ideas were exciting to me. I’d never liked any of my jobs. I didn’t quite hate them either. They kept me not-homeless. That was enough for a poor kid who heard her mother cry over not being able to feed us after she paid rent. I struggled mostly with that tension between having to work so much just to barely survive and the increasingly intoxicating dream of going to grad school. In academia I felt invigorated by the challenges it presented. It was rewarding. It was the first time I’d felt that.
Ideas are like a drug to me. What I love most about academia is being able to look back in time and space to trace how one small idea can morph and transform through people. How an idea discards aspects of itself, or gets encrusted with other ideas, and then embedded unto persons, nations, identities. How one idea can cause devastation or ecstasy or both, depending on how it has negotiated the inevitable shifts of time and space. Ideas are living, breathing things.
Despite this newfound appeal, fitting in was a struggle. Beyond the fact that I had no notion of how to be a student, there are several incidences that highlight how much of growing up in poverty made me feel so out-of-place in university.
In the early years of my first degree, in a Feminism and War class, the (white female) professor showed a clip of an African-American mother beaming with pride that her son had finished military academy. The young man was pictured at his graduation ceremony, face grinning, chest jutting out, and standing upright in his uniform. The instructor, pointing at the mother, admonished, “Women are just as complicit in the military industrial complex. Here’s this mother pushing her child into state-sanctioned murder for the glory of some misguided national fervour.”
And I thought, What the FUCK is this lady talking about?!?
I was flummoxed that an educated person utterly failed to see that “national fervour” was likely the least important reason that this family expressed such pride in the young man. To me, it was obvious that joining the military was an opportunity for him, a chance that offered experience, education, and respect that he might not otherwise have had. I know that face; my mother wore it too when my brother joined the military. “Finally,” my mother had thought, “this is a stable career where he can make something of himself.” And he did.
It frustrated me not only to disagree so vehemently with this professor, but that I never spoke up or felt comfortable sharing my dissent, not in the discussions, nor in our written assignments.
Nowadays, we call this particular kind of bias “White Feminism,” wherein (more often that not) middle class white feminists are oblivious to the issues faced by persons of a different race or class. Their pronouncements on the world reflect solely a concern for the well-being of other middle class white feminists, despite overt claims to wanting “equality.”
“Well, I’m certainly not a feminist,” I thought at the time.
Over and over and over again I felt alienated from what was being discussed and how it was not related to what my own experience dictated. Every time we talked about “the poor” or “disenfranchised” I would look around and think, “You stupid motherfuckers. You have no idea. You really have no clue. I am right here. Sitting right beside you. And the things you think about me are not just wrong, but insulting.” They were either bizarre claims to how lazy poor people were, or, there was this look of guilt on someone’s face, and both reactions made me nauseated. But I didn’t speak up. I was too angry to name myself as someone from this “sub-class,” because even if didn’t feel ashamed of my upbringing, I didn’t know how to argue for my perspective. I wasn’t emotionally equipped to challenge my professors and classmates, especially as I knew it would only draw pity. Fuck your pity, I would think at them. It’s useless.
It got better in grad school in terms of the content, the professors’ awareness, and the class discussions. At least there I was reading scholars that wrote about things in a way I resonated with. They echoed similar frustrations and problems within academia. But here’s the thing about higher education; the ideas written about and discussed in grad schools across North America do not reflect the institutional ethos. The entire system is based on the model of a privileged elite class of a student that is solely a student (not also working, or also a single parent, or also taking care of family members, or poor, or facing institutional sexism and racism). The demographics of university attendees have changed drastically, but the structure and policies are slower to adjust. So when a student fails out, universities never quite look at the systemic factors that contributed to this. I cannot tell you how many times in my life someone told me, “But you’re so smart!” when they learned I dropped out of a high school, or had difficulties in my bachelor’s (and now again, having real issues in my PhD). My mental response was always, “Intelligence has nothing to do with it.” My verbal response was usually some non-committal deflection.
The blunt truth is, you need far more than talent to succeed in academia. You need external financial support (even if you’re funded), and strong emotional support across the board (your family, your professors, your friends). The odd outlier makes it through without these things, sure. But they are the extreme exception.
There is an extensive list of Things Poor Kids Don’t Know about higher education, because they are either too embarrassed, and more often than not, don’t know which questions to ask. Most of these things have to do with money.
I didn’t know that you might not get paid right away if you start a job at the university in September, because it can take up to two months to get you on the payroll. If you have no savings and no one in your family has money, how do you pay your rent when you’re waiting for Accounts Services to process your funds?
I didn’t know that good grades could equal cash. How would I know that? It’s not clearly written anywhere because every school has a different budget and undisclosed process for how they disperse funds. No one told me. I didn’t know enough to ask. It’s just one of those things Everyone Knows (except for poor kids).
I didn’t know that I was expected to build my academic CV without being remunerated for the work. They tell you to apply for conferences, but what you find out is that you have to pay up front (conference fees, airfare, hotel, etc.) and only get reimbursed (maybe!) several months later and not in full. They tell you to submit papers for publication, but you will likely not get paid for them. I haven’t received one penny for any of my published articles or book chapters. They tell you to get involved in activities (student conferences, editing the graduate journal, etc.) but that is as a volunteer. None of these things contribute to credits on your transcript. All the things that you are expected to do take time and effort, but detract from your schoolwork, and also cost you money. But they sure do help you get a job after you graduate (so you are told).
I didn’t know that I should prepare, somehow, for unexpected illness. I’ll discuss more of these details in the next post, but the gist of it is, when I got ill (physically ill with an autoimmune disease but followed by a far more serious and dangerous depression) as my funding was running out, it derailed my entire life because I couldn’t work and didn’t have enough money to support myself. I literally paid my rent off of my (co-signed by my brother!) credit card because my meager savings barely lasted a few months and as a student I was in this non-class of a social category, ineligible for unemployment insurance, disability, or even welfare. And even then, my disdain and self-hatred for even considering going on welfare given how I grew up made me feel like a failure. I never want to go back to those conditions. They were traumatic enough the first time around.
Now, today, I feel profound humiliation that I have to convince my department that the stress from not knowing if I will have rent money affects my schoolwork. I try to give myself practical pep-talks: you have friends you can stay with if you don’t find a job; no one is going to let you go homeless; your animals will be okay because you’ll never let anything bad happen to them; you are a trained professional with exceptional skills and that is valued; you love teaching and can do that in many non-academic capacities; your health is amazing right now because you’ve spent the past two years actively working at getting physically and mentally better and you did that shit so good for you; and finally, you’re still a bitch that knows how to hustle when she needs to, and that shit never goes away.