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Opposing the “Naturalization of Misery:” A Discussion on Mental Health in Academia

Workshop Readings (links provided/material forthcoming on the drive): 

  • Two chapters from How to Build a Life in the Humanities: “Imposter Phenomenon” by Natalie M. Houston and “Academic Guilt” by Giuseppina Iacono Lobo 

Supplementary readings (if your time allows): 

            I have decided to frame my workshop session around two areas of focus; how do we choose what we really want to study, and then how do we sustain that study in a healthy way? To begin, I would love to spend some time discussing how we refine our interests and articulate our passions. I imagine this will be more helpful to some than others, but at least for me, I’m coming into the program with varying interests and wonder how to “land on” my speciality. I haven’t found a particular reading for this, but we will do an activity Carrie mentioned earlier in class, where we take time to list our favorite scholarly reads. My hope is that by building this personal list, we can thoughtfully notice useful patterns within our own preferences. 

            Thinking about discovering and articulating academic interests has also made me reflect on how we can sustain these passions throughout graduate school. For the rest of my workshop session, I would love to discuss issues of work/life balance and mental health. I was struck by Moten and Harney’s discussion of the “naturalization of misery” in academia; “the belief that intellectual work requires alienation and immobility and that the ensuing pain and nausea is a kind of badge of honor…” (Moten and Harney 117). Graduate school is challenging. There is no doubt it requires dedication, hard work and perseverance. But I am opposed to the false claim that academic productivity means isolation, fear and loneliness. I want my life as a graduate student to be multifaceted and I want to produce my best work out of a place of self-care and self-respect. Given the pressures of graduate school and academia, not to mention today’s precarious political, economic and pandemic climate, how do we maintain healthy lives as graduate students? How do we actively combat negative tendencies or harmful thought patterns, mindful that some are at a greater risk of developing mental health disorders than others? How do we support one another? How do we take this conscientiousness into the classroom as teachers? These are the kinds of questions I hope my workshop session can explore, first directed by two readings from How to Build a Life in the Humanities; Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance. Written by Greg Colon Semenza and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr., How to Build a Life is a collection of twenty-five short essays, written by scholars with a variety of positions at different institutions. The collection seeks to answer the question, how do you build a good career and a good life in the humanities? As a “collective meditation,” it draws on scholars’ personal insight on issues ranging from depression, to raising children, to race, gender and disability in academia, to working in a research institution or community college, to life on and off the tenure track.  Written for a wide academic audience, some topics naturally appeal more to early scholars or to those later along in their careers. 

            For our workshop session, I have chosen two chapters from this collection, the first of which is Chapter Eight, “Imposter Phenomenon” by Natalie M. Houston. Houston, Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, discusses the feelings that accompany the dreaded “Imposter Phenomenon,” what contributes to these feelings, and how to address them. The author provides strategies we can put into action to combat these feelings and reclaim agency, drawing on her personal experience as a student and professor. I think this reading can be appreciated by anyone who struggles with “imposter phenomenon” as Houston calls it, but I find it particularly relevant for us as first year doctoral students. The next chapter I hope proves useful is Chapter Nine, “Academic Guilt,” by Giuseppina Iacono Lobo, Assistant Professor at Loyola University Maryland. Lobo explores the definition of guilt, specifically academic guilt, why we feel guilty when we are not working, and guilt as a motivator versus an inhibitor. She draws on her experience as a student, professor and mother, and tracks her shifting experience of academic guilt as she grows older. I hope this reading can encourage an open conversation on how, when and why we experience and combat academic guilt.

I would also like to include a critical article published this February in College Composition and Communication entitled “Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies.” Through surveys and interviews with 433 doctoral faculty and students, the authors examine self-care practices in academia, the barriers to these practices, and the value of including self-care as professional practice. Although this is written with the composition community specifically in mind, it has relevance for all disciplines. I hope this piece can encourage us to reflect on how we can best integrate and model self-care practices in the classroom, as students and teachers. I would like to supplement this reading with another article which I think gives greater voice to the diverging experience of mental health disorders, particularly in the context of the pandemic. The study, “Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published this August, reveals how the pandemic has significantly impacted anxiety and depressive disorder rates since 2019, paying particular attention to its impact on women, low-income students, students of color, queer students and students who are caregivers. It would be great to use this to discuss how COVID has specifically impacted mental health/mental health resources in the CUNY community.  

Finally, I’m including a few supplemental readings if anyone is interested in exploring further. Pick and choose as your time allows!  

  • “Time Management and Timelessness” in The Slow Professor by : This chapter explores how creativity and productivity can flow from play, rest and pause. Although the book has been criticized given the privileged perspective of its two authors (white women occupying tenure track positions) it offers insight into the value of “slowness” in the corporatized academy. 
  • “Time Out” from the Supervalent Thought Blog by Lauren Berlant, Professor of English at the University of Chicago. A post that explores a few “unscheduled” days and thoughts in the life of Berlant — particularly from a stylistic perspective, an interesting take on what it means to take time out. 
  • “Blissful Blundering: Embracing Deficiency and Surviving Graduate School”  by Emily Pabst. A short piece on “being good at being not good.” How do we “appreciate the part of oneself that is…terrible at things?” to better overcome failure and rejection as students (Pabst 94)? 
  • CUNY Mental Health Resources: this seems like a good moment to look at CUNY’s services and resources!

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