Wednesday, March 1, 2017

I get by with a little help from my friends ... and structural privilege

So here is a thing that happened: last Wednesday at lunchtime, about 16 hours after I put up my post about academic overwhelm, anxiety, and insomnia, my chair emailed me to offer a department-funded grader for 50 hours.

I'm going to wait while you process that for a moment.

How do you feel about it? Tenured prof teaching two classes gets 50 hours of grader help. Prominent blogger complains to the internet, gets rescued by soft money. Struggling and ill professor gets needed accommodation, informally. People behaved like humans to help another human. All of these humans are very privileged. People have way more urgent problems than this prof.

Me? I have many feelings. I feel tremendous relief. I feel tremendous guilt. I have something that feels a bit like shame swirling around. I am embarrassed. I feel grateful.

Those 50 hours are going to cover most of the rest of the grading for my first year class, with 40 students handing in 1 page assignments for the next three weeks with five-day turnarounds, and then handing in 5-7 page papers after that, and then an exam. It's going to free up about 6-8 hours per week for the rest of the term, hours that I desperately need to do admin work, the grading for my other course, and my prep. I feel I can breathe again, like the level of busyness this 50 hours buys me will be keep me on the intense side of the line, but not on the impossible end of the spectrum where it was before. I have stopped panicking. I only worked for 2 hours instead of 10 this weekend. I needed this.

And yet.

Many colleagues teach more courses and more students than me, labour under the same or worse health constraints as I face, have less security, don't have offices with chairs to push together for a nap, can't commute on foot to get some needed fresh air. It was intimated to me that the help is justified under the cover of my (actually pretty damn heavy) administrative role. I am the exception. But there's nothing really special about me, no way I deserve any more than any one else. In many ways I feel I deserve it less.

Here is another thing that happened: when this incredible gift was offered to me, I almost turned it down, because I didn't want to be a bother. Also, weirdly, I wanted somehow, deep inside, to tough it out and be a hero, even though the point of my post was to deflate precisely that kind of thinking, that hazing model of academic excellence and bravura. But there it was, in my own head. And then: once I accepted, I felt so much better able to cope with what was left on my plate that I doubted whether I was actually unwell enough to deserve the help in the first place.

I'm narrating all this for you because it is evidence of the structural problems of the academy and my own deeply fucked-up reactions to a needed offer of help. I could show you my FitBit sleep logs and you would see how little rest I have been getting. I've been subtweeting my own anxiety for months, under panic of light jokes, like this little one from early in the term:


That tweet? It's top of mind because yesterday all of a sudden it was all over my mentions again: my tweet was embedded on the main page of Twitter in one of its 'Moments' feature. Heading? "Ha Ha Ha" with a gif of a kitten falling asleep standing up and falling over. It was a collection of ha-ha-funny tweets all containing the word 'micro sleep.' But it's not funny. I did fall asleep sitting up grading. I did have a semi-lucid dream. Ha ha ha. Now I've got 270 likes and a bunch of retweets labelled 'teacher problems, lol.' These should not be teacher problems.

I'm not asking for you to absolve me, dear colleagues. I just need you to know (since so many of you were so kindly solicitous of my situation) that things are considerably better now. And I wish such happy outcomes were equally available to all of us academic workers. And that even though I seem to be pretty open about how awful I felt and how poorly I was doing, I still don't want to accept help and don't feel like I deserve it. I went back to class today considerably springier in my step, staring down a full but not overwhelming work week, with a smile and plan. That felt good. But it feels terrible to know that others don't feel near so well.


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