OTSD — Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder — a diagnosis for what ails us.

I have attached a pdf of an essay I that began with a response to a FB friend who was feeling overwhelmed by all she has to struggle with and fear on a daily basis. She is a prominent disability activist who exists within the interstices of several categories of oppression: as a woman, as a lesbian, as disabled, as poor, as black (with no particular order of significance implied). For such activists it is easy to feel extraordinarily depressed about how much still needs to be done, and how little effect our efforts seem to have had in the present.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have OTSD — Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder — a label I just came up with this morning as I was writing my post supporting here (later to discover others have used similar labels). This is not and probably will never be entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — the psychiatry/psychology profession’s bible, because the concept violates the fundamental framework that grounds their understanding of their practice…that is, that people’s emotional and psychological problems are based on the individual’s processing of the conditions of their lives, separate from those of anyone else who experiences the same conditions. That is, the “science” of psychiatry/psychology is blind to systemic conditions and interprets all psychological problems as inherent in the individual, rather than a product of the existing organization of power relations.

Because the essay is long and complicated, and as a result, difficult to read online (especially with my currently designed website), I have created a pdf that people can download from here.

I hope people will take the time to comment on it/make suggestions/offer additional insights, either here on this site or on my business page on Facebook.

OTSD

“The Committee,” by Julie Schumacher–My Amazon.com review*

My “book review” is actually more my own review of what higher education is rapidly becoming. I do highly recommend this book to any and all who have experience with higher education in whatever position and at whatever level. It is funny as hell! In addition, as an “epistolary novel,” this book offers a terrific example of the skilled use of letters as a narrative technique. The story is constructed entirely from the wry, satiric letters of recommendation that the central character, an aging creative writing professor, writes on behalf of students and other faculty. It offers a number of real “LOLZ,” especially for anyone who has experience with higher education.

So, read the book and get those LOLZ for yourself! Meanwhile…

As a retired college professor in a different field (Phd., Mass Communication) and who has sat on numerous hiring and scholarship/award committees, I found this book about the travails of an aging creative writing professor extraordinarily entertaining and spot on in its satiric portrayal of the massively dysfunctional higher education system we have today (and may have always had — my teaching experience goes back to 1975), in particular the devaluation of all humanities fields, of which Mass Comm is one in spite of it being a good deal more practical than, say, English (my master’s degree), or Creative Writing (also part of my master’s, though not an MFA), as well as its increasingly absurd demands on humanities faculty (something that HAS changed since the 1970s).

Once upon a time professors were actually teachers and scholars. Now in many cases they are “content providers” who must provide exactly the same content across the board to everyone no matter their differences in teaching style or their scholarly interests and knowledge. I call it McUniversity, and it has about the same intellectual nutrition value as a Big Mac or a bag of fries provides to your body. Professors aren’t supposed to offer their own take on the subject matter because that means they are “shoving their personal ideology down students’ throats” — never mind that the specified content reflects its own ideological viewpoint. In my experience as both a tenure track and an adjunct, you aren’t supposed to criticize the status quo nor demonstrate to students how to do their own criticism, because the status quo is supposedly “the truth,” whereas criticism of it is “biased.” And thus McUniversities churn out more and more robots prepared to do as they are told. Which is exactly what the powers that be want.

The creation of a cadre of adjunct teachers who now provide the greater proportion of the “content” is in large part the functional foundation of McUniversities. Adjuncts (I have been one at several McUniversities/colleges) must provide their “content” in a way that is pleasing to students so they will get high evaluations, which are absolutely essential to getting rehired from term to term (although there are no guarantees even if you have the highest evaluations in the school). I tried so many times to explain to students that my job isn’t to give them what they think they want, but rather what I know they need–otherwise, why not just teach themselves? But no, the #1 reason a teacher would get low evaluations was if the course was “too hard” (translation: challenging, and because it was challenging, student would actually LEARN something they didn’t already know) and they didn’t get the “A” they expected from the day they walked into class).

While there are a few universities/colleges remaining that actually put learning and scholarship first, they are rapidly disappearing as that cadre of adjuncts (who might actually BE good teachers, but the circumstances require them to provide educational pablum so everyone can get an “A” or at least a “B”) takes over the majority of courses, because the university accountants have essentially taken control of the universities values, putting “saving money” ahead of providing a quality education.

Oh yes, I can see I need to write my own satirical book! Meanwhile I laughed all the way through this one as I recognized the conditions I had to deal with in my own professorial career (such as it was).

Now I am glad to be retired, and instead provide services to graduate students as a freelance editor and writing coach, and I am able to do what I always wanted to do but had to fight countless administrations determined to prevent, and that is to actually make a difference in students’ lives. Students shouldn’t have pay extra for what I do, but rather should receive it as an integral part of their university education. But alas, that is but a faint dream.

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*This article is a book review I posted on Amazon.com today and it is awaiting content approval by the Amazon.com moderators. It includes a plug for my business, so it may not be approved. And since even if it is approved, my followers here would not likely come across it, so I am duplicating it here, minus most of the business plug (since if you are reading it here, you already found me!).

Dissertation writing: inscribing a newly created “author in the text” while we create ourselves anew as academics

One of the issues new dissertation writers must address, but which is rarely if ever discussed, is the extent to which writing a dissertation (or, for that matter, any other text) involves creating a new self who is inscribed into the text. That “author-in-the-text” is not, of course, our complete selves nor does it in any way even remotely reflect the fullness of our various subjectivities. Rather, that author-in-the-text who successfully jumps the dissertation hurdle is the person who has proven that she can join the world of academia as a fully credentialed scholar, particularly in her chosen field. The subject she inscribes into her dissertation has a certain degree of confidence and authority, but she respects those who have come before her (e.g., in her literature review) and honors the members of her dissertation committee by demonstrating her knowledge of THEIR work, to the degree it is relevant to hers. The voice with which she speaks is knowledgeable of what has come before, but she has some new ideas and research to add to that. And she is able to take on the mantle of the scholar.

We all have many personas (or subjectivities), of course, who come out in different contexts. There is the persona who has fun with her friends and may in fact be a “stitch” — the “class clown,” so to speak. There is the lover, the friend, the spiritual person (if that is important to her), perhaps “the poet” or “artist,” and even the political activist. Then there are the subjectivities that accrue to us through our positions within race, gender, sex, ethnicity, ability, and class backgrounds (as well as other forms of intersubjectivity).

Although to some extent the “political activist” has been given some room to enter academic discourse (a very SMALL room), none of the other personas are admitted. And the subjectivities that we have acquired through our political and social positions remain suspect.

In the effort to eliminate those “verboten” subjectivities, all too often dissertators squeeze the very life out of their writing.

Those who enter academia from the margins come into that academic world as strangers to it. We have to learn a new language, a new way of thinking about the world, a new set of behavioral rules, and particularly a new set of rules for thinking and writing. It is all very strange to us. Flipping an analogy from Clifford Geertz, we are natives “going academic,” rather than academics “going native.” In the process of finding our way in this strange land, we become uncomfortable with it, long for our old ways of thinking and being in the world. Even if we have been academics before (such as I was when I got my master’s in English), when we enter into a field that is primarily sociological, we are often lost. Nothing looks familiar, and very little seems like fun. Why are we doing this? Why are we subjecting ourselves to this strange new world?

Note the word “subjecting.” When we identify ourselves as subjects — as subjects in a sentence, so to speak — we are at the helm, in control, the subjects of our destinies. We knew our old world. We knew how to be in it. We knew how to be subjects rather than objects.

But in order to become subjects in this new world we have to rewrite ourselves into the texts of our academic work. Coming from the margins is particularly difficult, because there is so much in academia that is an anathema to the cultural positions we once enjoyed. We have to be rational rather than intuitive. We have to write in a linear, logical way, using a new vocabulary and following a relatively confining “map.” We have to prove to those who hold the power that we are worthy subjects.

In order to do that, we have to SUBJECT ourselves to this new culture. We have to “go academic” and let go of our native culture. What seems completely rational from the point of view of our “native cultures” is denied by academia. If it is not relegated to the garbage heap, at the very least it is seen as “less than” the academic way of being in the world and thinking about it.

This can be a very painful process. We don’t want to let go of our native positions, nor should we. What would be the point of bringing people from the margins into the center if we end up being just like the people who are already there?

And so we struggle, constantly, with the urge to give up and walk away. The problem becomes: how do we maintain our original, native culture while we inscribe ourselves into our work as academics? Sometimes the process just hurts too much. It feels just too damn hard!

Renato Rosaldo, in the book, Culture and Truth, the Remaking of Social Analysis, offers a whole lot of permissions, most particularly because Rosaldo quotes from a wide variety of different kinds of texts to make his points. One of my biggest problems when I was writing my own dissertation was the feeling that I had to somehow legitimize what I have to say before I can say it. And often the problem is that what I have to say cannot be said within the normal rules of academic discourse.

Anya (my daughter) once gave me a book for Christmas, a collection of writings by women on war. One of the articles discusses how the techno-strategic discourse of nuclear defense excludes human subjects, makes nuclear missiles into the subjects that are to be “protected.” So that any reference to human subjects – the subjects of normal moral discourse – is illegitimate. The two forms of discourse are completely incompatible. The two have completely different referents. Within techno-strategic discourse, it is conceivable to have a “survivable” nuclear war, because the survivors are whatever nuclear weapons remain.

Rosaldo speaks of border crossings, of multiple cultural identities and subjectivities, of the insights that the powerless and subordinate may have into the powerful and dominant, of what the “weak” may have to say of the “strong.” Of incompatible narratives coexisting.

Clearly there are some narratives that must be buried. Some narratives are morally untenable.

I grew up as a nomad, with no particular community or set of identities, except, perhaps, for whatever community my family itself found in being different. There is a good deal about me that is “American,”’held onto tenuous indeed. However strong they may have been for her, they have not been passed on to her children.

I have no deep emotional ties to my own siblings. Though we have endured much trauma together.

I followed in my father’s footsteps, so to speak, in my adulthood. I have continued to be a nomad. I have refused roots; refused a history. I have sought freedom from my past. I am getting to be a bit old for that now.

Interestingly, in my search for freedom I also sought a community – a community of like-minded spirits. That community has been elusive. I touched it temporarily in Iowa City. A community of politically-committed intellectuals with imagination, striving to make sense of the world while trying to improve upon it. But it is impossible to find community in Iowa City because its population is so transient.

This is a rather roundabout way of getting to what I wanted to say about myself in the first place. And that is to my sense of intellectual homelessness. In a way I have repeated in my intellectual life the nomadic existence of my biography. I belong to no discipline. I stand in the border zones. Intellectually, I am like Rosaldo’s Chicano. Intellectually, I grew up in an Eden of art and literary studies, a writer of fiction, concerned with form, esthetics, beauty; I moved to the “real world” of journalism, history, sociology, anthropology; I’ve come back again to literary studies, armed with sociological and political concerns.

I suppose it is my intellectual homelessness that enables me to speak from the border zones, from the territory where the disciplines merge into one another. Borders have become my home. My home is wherever I am.

We have heard stories about the anthropologist “going native.” I wonder. Can a native “go anthropologist”? The anthropologist learns the language, ritual, customs, culture, of his/her subjects; then interprets them for an academic audience. Suppose we have a “native” learn the language, etc., of academia, and then return home to tell his/her community about the strange practices of academics. What could academics learn from such an exercise? Suppose an academic were to try to look at his/her own cultural practices from the point of view of his/her subjects of study?

Can the native “go academic” without losing his/her original identity? That is the question for those of us who have been at the margins and have entered academia, like Rosaldo as a Chicano, like nearly all women, and certainly all people of color. Learning academic discourse changes us; it makes the unthinkable thinkable. We have to acquire a different subject position, and that transforms us; yet we can never become one with the dominant class, one with Anglo-Eurpopean men. We no longer belong to the place where we came from; we will never find ourselves at the center, either – although it is questionable whether we desire that position anyway.

In some ways I think there is greater freedom in the margins. In order to be in the center you have to follow the rules that define the center. Becoming a critic automatically places you on the outside. Though of course there are centers of criticism, e.g., white Marxist males; in this case marginal positions are chosen by groups who otherwise occupy center stage. The difference is that marginalization here is a matter of choice; the men can return to the center at any time, are likely to be welcomed as prodigal sons.

Things fall apart.

The center cannot hold.

(Or something to that effect, from Yeats’s The Second Coming.)

What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

The center is disintegrating, and that is scary to those who have always occupied it.

The academic writing from the margins in order to eventually locate herself in the center of academia is constantly engaged in a balancing act: she must hold onto the special subject positions that she has acquired from living in the margins in order to maintain the special viewpoints that she brings into academia, for what else is the point of diversity? At the same time, in order to take on the mantle of the “credentialed scholar,” she must speak in an alien voice. She has to “go academic” while at the same time holding fiercely onto the person she was before she entered the academy. It is a challenge fraught with peril.

And I think that this, often, is the source of greatest anxiety for those attempting to enter academia from the margins — an anxiety that can cripple at worst and “constipate” (in terms of the flow of writing) at best. The linguistic structures that emerge from this battle all to often are cramped, confusing, ambiguous, and convoluted; worst of all, the process can “kill” — at least, kill the will to go on.

Committee members and dissertation advisers are gatekeepers, and as such they must learn to watch for the ways in which those who enter the academy from the margins can be destroyed by it. That is, if they are truly committed to diversity.

Respect (and honor) your process

Tonight I was conversing with one of my clients who’s finally found her way through the tunnel she was in when we first started. As I told her, to be perfectly honest, if it had not been for what I know about the psychology of writing and learning to write (after decades of working with people at various levels of skill), I would have responded to her first drafts with something like “Who let you into graduate school?” Her work appeared to be about the level of a first year student in need of remedial instruction. And it would have been easy to dismiss the job and say “sorry, I don’t think you are cut out for this.” As, apparently, other faculty have implied. But I knew there had to be something deeper going on. You don’t get to that point in graduate school without being smart.

And then there was the topic of her dissertation, about what African American women students have to deal with, particularly the isolation, and being bombarded with cultural images telling them that they will never have what it takes.

I knew something deep was going on here, and we had to track it down and work through it.

And we have. Much of it has to do with the process she must go through in order to learn the material and apply it. This is very much like the process I had to go through with my then undiagnosed ADHD, where it took me forever to do the same work other classmates did in no time. (Though, to be quite honest, their end result often was nowhere near as good as mine, as reflected in my receiving my department’s award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in Research.)

She said she felt embarrassed about the work she had submitted earlier. I said, no! Don’t be embarrassed about it.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that self-criticism. Respect and honor your process. Clearly there are some people who will not understand, and from them you need to hide your process. But don’t let their lack of understanding give you something to beat yourself up over.

That’s how you work your way into another block.

Equally important, I saw how she was bound up in the very same conditions about which she was writing, in the same way that another client of mine who is facing blank page panic. Both of them must deal with not only all the conditions that lead the rest of us to have that panic; they must also deal with the cultural images telling them that they as black women aren’t cut out for academia.

All the more reason to respect and honor the process. This is how you get where you need to go.

My commitment to supporting minority achievement

One of my current clients is working on a dissertation about academically successful black women, and what it takes for them to survive and succeed in academia. Among the issues she raises is the isolation that black women feel — the sense that they are out there, alone, struggling against internalized critics spouting racist denigrations of their character and ability, and having those voices reified in comments made by cohorts, faculty and administrators, albeit  often in unconscious ways.

These internalized critics can have a profound impact on the student’s ability to write. Much of good writing boils down to confidence in yourself. Without that confidence, getting the words out is extraordinarily painful. And terrifying. That critic within — the combined voices of all those committee members clearly horrified with your “obvious” shortcomings — stands over you as your worst enemy, ax in hand, ready to cut your head off if you don’t produce, and the words just won’t come. Or when they do, they are squeezed into incoherent, turgid, upside-down, inside-out sentences and paragraphs — making it appear as if you are so lacking in intelligence and skill that faculty wonder (behind your back) how you ever got admitted to graduate school in the first place. They may privately shrug their shoulders and believe you made it in solely because of affirmative action, unable to say what they really think because, well, there are all those pesky lawsuits just waiting to be filed, and they fear being named.

And then there are those who want to help, but don’t have the slightest clue how.

Beneath it all, however, there is this: without an advocate, without someone believing in you, without someone recognizing the psychology behind your frozen writing, you are at sea in a world that doesn’t understand, that cannot see the value of your contribution. You are caught up in a sticky, unrelenting web, and every effort to find your way out just binds you tighter.

There is a way out. I am more than an editor: I am a coach. I am that advocate. With me, your success is my success. I feel deep satisfaction as you work your way around and over and hurdles placed in front of you. I “walk the walk” right along side you, cheering you on, helping you find your way, filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle that somehow never made it into your preparation for academic work. And when the breakthroughs happen, I’m jumping for joy.