Through career discernment, I continue to learn the importance of slowing down, listening to embodied wisdom, and building emotional literacies. Decision-making involves more than well-reasoned answers, and it holds potential for healing when prioritizing commitments and alignment with our better/best selves.
I continue to wish for personal and collective healing and believe our working lives play a role in this process. How might our careers—and ongoing career discernment—contribute to grieving and growing? To greater acknowledgement of both/and? To the willingness to tread alternative paths?
During graduate school, there were many weeks of being so overloaded by assigned reading that I couldn’t do it all and felt constantly behind. I recognized that the goal was to learn to skim and to put my hands on more and more research, even if I couldn’t savor many pieces. The trouble was that the more I couldn’t savor what I was reading, the more I associated reading itself with feelings of being overwhelmed and behind.
When I shared with a mentor how stressful reading had become, she smiled knowingly and related her own experience of knowing that there will always be more to read than time to read it. More than her sympathy, though, I remember what she shared about choosing to read for inspiration:
“Yes, I read for my research (to answer burning questions), but I also read for inspiration (to keep the questions alive). Be sure that you’re reading what inspires you, what fires you up.”
For too long (in my faculty position), I read primarily for work: for courses I was teaching, for articles I was submitting, and for committees I was serving. I could feel the excitement when reading an article or book that really spoke to me, and increasingly, I read blog posts and sought out podcasts as sources of inspiration. Still, I wanted to prioritize “reading for fun,” especially books that could light my imagination and help me imagine more just worlds, more equitable relations.
Now that I’m creating new habits and work priorities, I’m reading again. I’m reading for research, for fun, and especially for inspiration. I’m reading books and audiobooks as well as continuing to learn from blogs, podcasts, essays, and articles. Now, instead of stress, I’m experiencing joy that there will always be more to read.
I’m certainly not the quickest reader, nor is that my goal.
I’m certainly not the most focused or studious or careful reader, nor are those my goals.
Instead, I’m reading to learn and love and light up with inspiration.
I’m choosing to read—a little each week—and it’s adding up to reading new books.
In what’s been some tough days—from feeling beyond messy and upside down to grieving and raging at outright injustice—these books are helping me see beyond this moment and into movement space. They’re keeping me inspired for the long haul, toward building and sustaining momentum. They’re helping me tap into my embodied self and the histories, emotions, and trauma it carries, while imagining ways forward—pathways to healing.
I plan to keep reading, not because I have to but because I want to. I choose reading, and I choose it for the future.
Still, if I’m being honest with myself, the past few weeks have felt messier than I’d like to admit. I’ve had a piece of a broken ceramic bowl in my foot, a mostly mild but sometimes excruciatingly painful attention-getter. My podiatrist tells me to be patient and let my body release the piece naturally. Yet, I’m impatient and complaining about this regular reminder that I’ve got broken pieces within myself to heal and release before moving forward.
What I’m realizing, as I work the healing process that requires patience with pain, is that I’m in the midst of chrysalis, or the gruesome transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.
In the past year, as I’ve announced career changes, moved cross-country, and continue to reflect on and refashion my identity, I’ve been seeing many caterpillars and butterflies and excited to think of myself as “in transformation.” Now that I’m fully in it—in the midst of big changes—I’m remembering that caterpillars essentially digest themselves, dissolving their past bodies while creating new ones. They transform into another being that moves so differently, eats so differently, and experiences life so differently that they aren’t recognized as the same being. How much disintegration, discomfort, and dis-ease must be involved in that transformation?
So, what does chrysalis (this time of mess, mess, and more mess) look like for me?
More days that I’d like to admit …
I’m spending many hours in one place, curled on the couch.
I’m eating irregularly.
I’m waking from vivid and sometimes-scary dreams.
I’m crying often and at unexpected times.
I’m all over the place, teeter-tottering as I walk, carefully balancing on my injured foot, and yet feeling completely off balance.
I’m creating art and climbing and falling and calling friends and seeing a counselor and writing, writing, writing—all toward processing big changes and even bigger legacies of personal, family, and social trauma and wrongdoing and lingering hurts.
I don’t know yet who I’ll be when I emerge from the messy and often-painful chrysalis, but here are two embodied experiences from inside it:
Experience #1: On a day of bingeing sugar and TV, I find myself pulled into a documentary on hooking up via dating apps, which highlights rape culture, sexual violence, and the ways in which systemic racism and intersectional oppression manifest in technological innovation and intimate relations alike. It’s not until a headache gets me to turn off the TV that I recognize that my body is incredibly tense. I’m physically holding onto, remembering, and witnessing anew this violence. I need to hold myself, quiet my mind, and notice my body’s wisdom before I can process my own experiences and reactions to what’s surely shared (collective) tension.
Because I can’t look at another screen when my head is pounding, I walk around the block and meet a postal worker who acts with such gentle kindness that I find myself crying. In the exchange of mailing a package, I feel energetically how the person before me holds hope and good will in the words, “Have a bless day.” I’m lifted by human connection, and I’m blabbering about the beauty of this brief loving interaction, as I’m still releasing through tears the heartache of how much we, as humans, hurt one another.
Experience #2: I find myself fidgeting and biting my cuticles as I struggle to find words to write about complicity within systemic violence. I’m remembering several recently painful interactions in which I see myself contributing to harm (scenes for another blog post), and I’m turning that harm inward while writing. It’s not until I draw blood that I realize that I’m literally making myself bleed from my fingers—the instruments of writing expression.
Again, my body offers such a clear message about the relationship between personal (internal, self) and collective (systemic, shared) harm. My counselor uses language that’s familiar to me after years of writing about the relationship between the micro and macro. She tells me that processing my own lived experiences involves looking at broader family and community dynamics as well as social-cultural-historical conditioning.
What this means is that binge-eating sugar and binge-watching TV, as two examples, aren’t only about my actions. These “bingeing” experiences are also about cultural scripts that make “sweets” and “favorite TV shows” soothing salves for a harsh world. Sweets and shows stand in for or serve as reminders of good memories, loving relationships, special occasions, self-care, and much more. Streaming services like Amazon and Netflix start next episodes before previous ones have finished. The examples go on and on, pointing to the need for personal healing in the context of larger collective healing. For changing personal habits in the context of changing current conditions and cultural scripts.
Within the chrysalis—when experiencing headaches and bleeding fingers—I am lifted by human connection and the possibilities for personal, ancestral, and collective healing. And being lifted, inspired, and guided matters.
Grounding matters, too, which is why I suspect my foot has manifested the consistent, not-easily-forgotten reminder to keep releasing broken pieces. Pieces internalized and unseen. Pieces under the surface and buried deep. Pieces asking to be released if I’m to be transformed.
As a series of articles, “Outside Higher Ed” seeks to identify processes that can be used by academics questioning whether and/or when to leave academia. Over the next four months, I hope to share my chronological process of leaving a tenure-track position, walking through four stages:
(1) origin—recognizing the seed or origin of the idea to leave,
(2) discernment—engaging in careful consideration and career discernment,
(3) planning—preparing when and how to leave, and
(4) announcement—experiencing the exit and others’ reactions to it.
This series has come about, in part, as a way for me to process my experience of changing careers. It has come about, too, as I’ve received requests to share more of my experience, decision-making process, and career advice. Additionally, it’s come about as a response to academic “quit lit,” which I read when making my decision and found both helpful and incomplete.
Typically, stories about leaving higher education share insights into the conditions that push people away from this work, but rarely do they share the pulls or “strong YES” leading to something else. Rarely do they share the processes or practices used to make big career changes or pull back the curtain into the nuts-and-bolts of planning how to leave.
This first piece in “Outside Higher Ed” is the most like the “quit lit” I’ve read, as I share the origins of my story, or seeds underlying my career move. These seeds speak to privileges (race, class, and other positionalities) that make available for me a range of career possibilities. They also speak to my conditioning as a young girl to pursue teaching instead of writing—conditioning that I continue to reckon with and push back on, inspiring new versions of myself called to speak-write-act in this time of urgency.
I invite you to join me in following this series if you’re considering career moves or responsible for mentoring others; if you’re situated in higher education or processing past educational experiences; if you’re undergoing identity shifts or aspiring to a new self; if you’re interested in making change or considering how others do so.
And I welcome feedback and shared storytelling, as I continue to make sense of my own experience and chart new directions from here.
I hold this advice close because I’m so often scared, and recently I’ve been looking deeper into fears and noticing how much they influence (and limit) my life.
One example involves a recent hike in which I had an amazing experience walking on my own through twilight into dark. I strolled more than hiked, paying attention to my breath, senses, and the scenes around me.
I noticed, for example, how sound changes along the trail, especially when walking next to bushes alive with insects and crossing from one side of the mountain to the other. I could feel the ground—packed dirt, flat stones, and jagged rocks—and how each traveled up my body: from feet to ankles to knees to hips to my back. I experienced day turn to night—witnessing not only the sunset but also the twilight and darkening of night. My eyes adjusted, my perceptions changed, and the moon became more and more pronounced.
Truly, I love being outdoors at night and in the wilderness on my own, but I so rarely allow myself either experience because fears are driving more than back-seat riding. For a number of reasons, this evening was different.
To begin, I’d already thrown caution to the wind: riding across Phoenix to get to the trailhead during rush hour traffic. On a typical day, I’d give up hiking to avoid a car ride. Perhaps being out of my routine helped me open to what I too-often restrict.
The conditions also helped me feel secure. Though hiking in 105-degree heat, the trail was crowded with hikers every few feet, so I felt sure that rattlesnakes would stay far away. I had companions on the trail—people I knew were walking slower and faster than me, making me feel that I wasn’t out “on my own.” I had water and a cell phone, too. Sturdy boots and a hat helped me feel prepared.
As I strolled, I witnessed the beauty of the moment, wanting to soak it all in and linger in the possibilities. I found myself thinking about fear and its partner, trust. What if I trust not only snakes but also myself? What if I trust my feet to be sure-footed? What if I trust that I’m prepared to speak, write, and stand UP when action is needed? What if I trust that I’ll learn and recover from the riskiness, hurts, and whatever else fear is warning me about?
To open my heart and trust more boldly and bravely, I’ll need to do it scared. In this time of vast injustice and needed resistance, Docta E’s advice is what I need to hear and to say to myself time and time again.
My cross-country move from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Washington, D.C. has stretched over weeks turned into months. From traveling to find an apartment to now unpacking boxes, I’ve upturned almost every aspect of life. In the past weeks, I’ve sold my furniture, driven hundreds of miles, lost and found items shipped through Amtrak, lived out of suitcases in a temporary residence, and now moved into the apartment-to-be-home (hopefully for some time to come).
From Wisconsin to Washington, I’m still seeing red Ws in every direction I turn.
From Wisconsin to Washington, I’m still seeing red Ws in every direction I turn.
This moving process has offered numerous life lessons. Among them are the importance of qualities like humility and humor and the beauty of loving relations that keep me laughing even when crying.
In the case of my move, the traps are too clear: I readily focus on pain without noticing pleasure. Likewise, I share stories of pleasure without noting the pain. Truly, life is richly textured in dialectical tensions (seeming contractions) that, together, get closer to truth. Toward truth-telling, here are some of these tensions I’m recognizing now, while moving:
1. Stuff brings both pain and pleasure. Despite downsizing significantly in recent years, I’m still amazed by the bulk of my possessions. I’ve found myself complaining: “How can we have this much stuff? I can’t possible carry another box.” Moments later, I’m unpacking and hugging Larry, the teddy bear who accompanied me to summer camp in my youth, and I’m delighted and grateful for keeping at least some impractical stuff. The speed with which I’m complaining and delighting over “stuff” is a sure sign that it’s both: both painful and pleasurable.
2. Habits are both hurtful and helpful. Moving creates the conditions for reviewing routines and patterns of living. While it’s easy to abandon all habits (the good and the bad), it’s also possible to assess which work and which don’t. When something as simple as taking daily vitamins falls away, I’m noticing how my body responds. On the one hand, my belly begins churning, reminding me not to forget the heating pad and probiotics. On the other hand, adding back in vitamins one at a time allows me to figure out which hasn’t been sitting quite right and to create a new nutritional plan.
Similarly, a new neighborhood leads to discovering new foods, activities, relations, and embodied experiences. The move has me asking: Which habits are serving me now, and which are asking to be released? What do I want my days to be like? What habits are (mis)aligned with my commitments?
3. Emotional swings are both flattening and fun. Dialectic tensions like pain and pleasure, hurting and helping also lead to emotional swings: from downtrodden to upbeat—from falling on the floor in exhaustion to frantically cleaning in bursts of energy. Such emotional swings remind me of the presence of sadness alongside joy, disgust alongside delight, effort alongside excitement. They remind me why emotional literacies help with valuing the full spectrum of emotions, which convey important information.
The move has me experiencing a wide range of emotions and really trying to recognize them as messengers: not blocking any emotions, but asking what each has to teach me. This process, I hope, will funnel back into decisions about which “stuff” and habits to keep and which to release.
As I continue unpacking, I hope these reflections highlight again the value of a both/and approach to life, activism, and more. And if you’re in or near or visiting DC, please know that I’d love to connect and build community, as I make a new home.
As part of my research on epistemic injustice, I’ve been thinking about the power of naming: the power of having the linguistic resources to identify, describe, and call out varied experiences, especially experiences of injustice.
Systemic oppression works in a way that denies the ability to name experiences of wrongdoing. When experiences are named, they can be acknowledged and addressed. To me, this is part of the power of the word microaggressions: the word allows for acknowledgement of what too often goes unacknowledged. Similarly, phrases like sexual violence, rape culture, and #metoo do important work in raising awareness, mobilizing response, allowing for healing, and calling attention to what’s typically hidden.
This week Inside Higher Ed published my article on why it’s important to acknowledge and address the trauma of graduate education as part of career conversations:
“The Trauma of Graduate Education” shares insights from this research on epistemic injustice, relating how graduate writers (participants in my dissertation research from several years ago) described the need for therapy, counseling, and self-help. In interview after interview, I heard writers (many of whom were white women and women of color) describe harms inflicted through graduate school. Moreover, participants’ stories echoed my own experiences with graduate education, which tore down my confidence, contributed to internalized pain, and kicked off a healing process that’s now taking me away from higher education.
In the article, I describe why it’s important to name these experiences as trauma:
“Often conversations with career advisers are similar to those among graduate writers: it is common to share, receive and even exchange stories of trauma while often not naming it as such. An important part of career conversations, therefore, may be recognizing trauma as trauma. There is power in naming experiences: acknowledging and giving language to describe trauma can lead to other actions, such as seeking trauma-informed care or, in Grollman’s words, “rewriting the trauma narrative.” Similarly, it’s important to name microaggressions as microaggressions, epistemic injustice as epistemic injustice and violence as violence. Doing so validates the reality of the experience (essentially saying, yes, this experience really did happen and really is wrong), countering the many invalidations that cumulate into trauma. Further, giving language to experience helps with developing the linguistic resources to understand, process and describe trauma and other injustice.”
My call to name trauma must have struck a chord with readers. On the one hand, I’m experiencing a new round of graduate students (especially white women and folks of color) reaching out and saying, “Yes, me too!” On the other hand, I’m seeing comment after comment (from what I can tell, all by white men) complaining about my “over-sensitivity,” exaggeration, and misuse of the word trauma.
Alongside these various forms of gaslighting (another powerful word for naming injustice) is a familiar rhetorical move of saying that if the experience of graduate education is too traumatic, then folks should just leave. Here again, as in my dissertation research and my own lived experience, I see readers (folks engaged in academia) making the moves that feed into trauma: those of denial, dismissal, and disengagement.
Such interactional moves point to why we need an “unrestrained” definition of trauma. What registers as trauma to one person may not to another, but to deny the experience is to deny the person. Writing off the reality of trauma is linked literally to writing off the people who experience it. Hence, we see the perpetuation of violence—perpetuation of oppression, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and epistemic injustice—within and beyond higher education.
Though this violence is all-too-familiar, I am encouraged again by the power of speaking and writing UP. I am encouraged that together we can build the linguistic resources to name experiences of injustice, and together we can use the act of naming to mobilize.
Today, tomorrow, and going forward, I’m naming trauma as trauma. And I hope you’ll join me in naming experiences of injustice to acknowledge and address them. We’ll need a lot of creativity and visioning to keep building the words for naming what’s intended not to be named. But build together, we must.