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

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“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!).

A few typographical points: making your manuscript more readable and saving paper to boot!

While I am on the subject of working with MS Word I figure I should make a few small (but crucial) points about typography.

The first thing you need to know about fonts is that there are two basic types: serif and sans serif. Serif type has those little squiggly things at the tips of the lines that form the letters. Sans serif type has basic, clean lines. One of the most popular fonts for academic work is Times New Roman (or Times); the second most popular are Helvetica and Arial, which are very similar sans serif fonts.

Below you will find a screen shot of the first three paragraphs of this post in Times New Roman, Helvetica, and Arial:

Font comparison 1

As you can see, Helvetica and Arial look quite similar — but notice that Arial takes up slightly less space, while Times New Roman takes up the least space of all. Imagine the difference that will make when you go to print several dozen or more pages—imagine how many trees can be saved when students choose the right font for printed papers! Not to mention how much money you save on copying costs or even printing your own. Although the ink cost is pretty close to the same, you would be saving the cost of paper, and over time that really adds up.

So, which of these are easiest to read? Studies on typography and reading have confirmed that serif type is easier to read in print, whereas sans serif is easier to read online or in electronic files. Whether your faculty want you to submit paper or electronic versions of your work is key to choosing which font to use. Many faculty are now requesting electronic versions only  — particularly for online courses, since the mailing back and forth can get to be horrendous. On the other hand, many still want to read your work on paper. Helvetica and Arial, however, can be readable at 10 point, which will save even more paper:

Font size comparisons

As you can see here, Arial 10 point takes up even less space than Times New Roman 12 pt. But it is still relatively easy to read, even on paper. In fact, both Helvetica and Arial are easier to read at 10 point vs. 12 point type—unless you are in need of large type because of visual acuity problems, the smaller font is easier to read. There comes a point with font size when the larger is more difficult to read than the smaller, especially when there are large blocks of continuous type as there are in academic papers. Headings and subheadings are a different story altogether, however. You need to check with your department’s preferred style book to find out how best to set those headings.

Now, here’s the thing. When you are submitting a manuscript to me for editing, I want all of your type to be exactly the same throughout (except where you need to indicate emphasis with italics). Why? Because I will use Word’s wonderful style setting features, which allow me to format your work exactly according to your department or graduate college’s specifications. And if there turns out to be some error, I can change every heading and subheading throughout the paper in the blink of an eye by just changing the style settings. This saves a tremendous amount of work!

Equally important is that those style-set headings and subheadings will be used to “magically” construct a table of contents, also in the blink of an eye, with all the page numbers exactly what they are supposed to be and where they are supposed to be. Amazing, huh? 

Now,when you are submitting a paper on paper to a professor or teacher, first make sure if he or she has a preference for specific fonts and sizes. If you have a choice, you have to weigh the advantages of saving paper versus readability. Saving paper matters most when you have to provide several copies of a long document—you can literally save yourself hundreds of dollars if you have to supply, for instance, five copies of a 40-50,000 word document, which is what most dissertations or books are. Most people can handle 10 point Arial or Helvetica, but some cannot. In fact, your professor may specify which font you are to use. There is a reason for this visual “rigidity”—too much font variation among student papers can be distracting. You want your professor to focus on the content of your paper and not on its visual appearance—unless, of course, there is an assignment asking you to use photographs or illustrations and laying the type and images out as a brochure or poster. Whatever you do, don’t vary the font WITHIN your paper (except for size and bolding or italics, as specified for headings and subheadings by your required style book (APA, MLA/Turabian, Chicago, etc.).

When you submit a manuscript for publication to a journal or book publisher, be sure to find out what type font(s) and sizes they prefer as well as which style manual they use. Some don’t care about the fonts, but most do. Again, the uniformity of appearance is intended to remove the distraction of having to read submissions in a wide variety of fonts.

There are a few other fonts that are now being accepted for academic work, such as the samples below:

Serif type comparisons

As you can see, Times New Roman beats both of these others hands down for space saving. And although this screen shot of Times New Roman isn’t the most readable (for one thing, remember, serif type is harder to read online), it is eminently readable on paper and the size is just fine. There are typographical terms that explain the differences in appearance and use of space, but unless you are a graphic designer, you don’t need to be confused by them.

Here are comparisons of other sans serif fonts that are becoming more acceptable for academic use:

sans serif type comparisons

As you can see, Gil Sans is the most economical in terms of space saving of all these sans serif fonts. However, I don’t recommend it for long blocks of type, such as what you would have in an academic paper. I use it mostly for cover letters (or other formal letters) because I can squeeze a whole lot of words onto one (or two) pages, and it is still relatively easy to read. It wouldn’t work well with 8-10 pages or more, however.

Font and font size selection in academia come down to first pleasing your professor, and second, saving money (not to mention trees) by choosing the font that is both easily readable and economical in paper consumption.

Next up will be more discussion of typographical issues. For now, this is enough to absorb!

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.

When Outlines Paralyze

There are essentially two types of writers in the world: those who create and follow outlines with ease, and those who are paralyzed by them.

I’m the type that gets paralyzed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still find outlines very useful, but not until after I’ve written a full draft. Then and ONLY then can I find the right organizing scheme that develops organically from the content, rather than being imposed upon it. If I set up an outline too soon in the game, and then try to follow it, I will spend hours staring blankly at my screen, or writing in fits and starts, going here and there and essentially nowhere in the end.

I am the kind of writer who needs the process of getting the words down on paper (or these days, coded into bytes), in order to find out what I know and what I want to say. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write down one thought, and that thought suggests another, and another, and another. Ultimately it becomes clear that I am beginning to repeat myself, and that I am rambling, often incoherently. But it’s best for me to keep the words flowing until they just won’t flow anymore. Then I can go back and edit out the chaff and put like things together and contrasty things side-by-side, and separate the ideas that belong in some other work from the one I need to write at the moment.

So how does that work after you have submitted a dissertation proposal with this beautiful outline that makes so much sense…until you actually try to write the material that is supposed to go with it? Well, as I told one of my coaching clients recently: the purpose of your outline in your dissertation proposal is to get your committee’s approval. After that, you are free to go wherever your ideas and your research take you, as long as you end up with something remotely resembling your proposal…and it is good.

The truth of the matter with my own dissertation is that you would barely recognize what I ended up with compared with the original outline I proposed. That’s because in the process of doing the research I learned so much more than I knew when I started. How can you create a workable outline of a piece that you haven’t even researched yet?

Another analogy I gave her derives from an essay I wrote decades ago when I applied to be a teaching master of arts candidate at Cal State Long Beach. I wrote then comparing writing to the process of working with clay in the ceramics courses I’d taken while I was an art major. One day I was working in the ceramics lab diligently trying to create nice little objects that would serve as Christmas gifts. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. He said that was fine if that was all I wanted to do. But if I wanted to become a potter, I had to learn to listen to the clay. Instead of imposing pre-conceived ideas about what my object should look like, I had to learn to listen for the clay to tell me what it wanted to be. And I had to make mountains of mistakes, working the clay over and over and over again. Stopping, slicing it to see how even the walls were, then punching it down and starting over again. And over and over and over again.

That’s the same way I approach my writing. That is, the writing that comes before the editing.

My client gave me her plan for the next time — that she would do the next chapter, and she said it would be beautiful.

I said, “I’m not looking for beautiful.” Beautiful is what happens after the clay is out there, after it’s been worked through, after it has told you what it needs to be. Then we carve, cutting out what doesn’t belong, shaping and reshaping what is left.

Don’t worry about beautiful, I said. I am an expert at organizing and polishing writing, but I can’t do it until after the writing has been done!

See, the thing is that when you are aiming for beautiful when you don’t have much to work with yet is that the Editor in your head becomes a Vulture standing over you, ready to pounce and destroy. Or, as Gail Godwin put it, the Editor becomes “The Watcher at the Gate,”

Freud quotes Schiller, who is writing a letter to a friend.  The friend complains of his lack of creative power.  Schiller replies with an allegory.  He says it is not good if the intellect examines too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates.  “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.  You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

 [I read this essay ages ago for an assignment at a women’s writing conference at UC Santa Cruz, two weeks worth of nothing short of heaven for me at the time, 1978.]

Editors are wonderful beings — whether in your own head, or hired. They are extremely useful and, when activated at the proper time, they can do beautiful. But the ones in your head have a tendency to block you rather than help you if employed to early in the game.

So for now, just write! 

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.