Cancer and Contingency

by Lynn Clement


Dear Reader,

It’s been a while.  Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I have.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and put my thoughts to paper and today I do so for release.  Writing functions as such an important catharsis for me, which is why I was so desperate to get back to the page after a very long, and unexpected, writing hiatus.

I wish I could say it was for exciting reasons, but alas, it was not. As you read in my last post, 2019 started out much the same as it always has, but it did not maintain its mundanity.  The next post I had planned to write was going to feature the professional conference I attended in February. Instead, directly after that conference, I was confronted with a life changing diagnosis; Colorectal Cancer, Stage IV.

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My chemo ball, worn every two weeks for three days.  My daughter dubbed it “Rolly”.

I tried crying about it for about a week, contemplating my demise, but it didn’t suit me. Neither did eating my feelings instead of writing them down (although mindfully eating a bag of Doritos does have its merits). So here I am, doing something I usually loathe, making my personal life public.  I’ve gone back and forth about this post, and about extending my hiatus, but then I remembered that “the personal is political”, and felt empowered by idea that one’s personal experience can help political or social discourse.  Perhaps that is what I’m supposed to do with this experience.

I finished my 8th and final round of chemo at the end of July and today I start radiation as I also begin another semester teaching art history at 2 community colleges.  My doctors and I have high expectations for remission, but it will be a long road until then.  I remain my optimistic self and fortunately, the nature of my job has allowed me to use the summer to focus on my health and my family.  I was also fortunate that, despite a demanding schedule of chemo, radiation, and surgery, I was, and continue to be, able to work, semi-normally, with the help of my family, friends, and colleagues.  It truly does take a village.

Now let me pause for a moment right here, dear reader, to assure you that this isn’t intended to be a traditional cancer post.  I’m not ready to detail my treatment or any deep insights I may have gained from this humbling experience.  I may never have insights.  I still change the cat litter and my daughter still steals my phone to use the toilet.  I guess at the the least I’ve learned to be thankful that everyone else in this house has a colon functioning better than I.  In addition, I have yet to fully face the fears that come with this disease. Not yet.  I need space from it and time to figure out what my relationship with cancer will be.

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Chemo made me very tired and Hal made for a great napping buddy.

However, fighting cancer has heightened the lens through which I view the world and my own life. Detailing my journey (thus far) to close family and friends, I quickly noticed my over-use of the word “lucky”. Lucky that I had doctors who took me seriously when I told them my pain was unusual.  Lucky that those doctors sprung to action. Lucky my co-workers stepped in to teach the classes I was unable to attend and help me finish my spring semester so I didn’t lose the already tenuous hold I have on my contingent faculty position.  Lucky that my husband has good insurance and kind co-workers as well.  Lucky that I’m surrounded by family that are friends and friends that are family who have come to help take care of me, my child, my house, my cooking and cleaning, because considering hiring help on an adjunct salary is laughable.

As a long-term, career, adjunct professor, I’ve always kept up with information about the status of contingent faculty experiences, but that attention is now focused even more with one question: what if this happens to someone else who isn’t so “lucky”.  The answer to that question isn’t hard to find since my story is not unique.  The death of  Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked much debate about the treatment of adjuncts as did the death of Thea Hunter. Both women had done everything right, in terms of securing degrees and accolades, which should have garnered them success in their respective fields.  Instead, they both died in poverty.  In addition, there are myriad articles detailing the realities of life as a contingent employee, including data on low pay and the need to secure additional jobs to make ends meet, which is easier said than done.

Reflecting on my mortality, and how expendable I seem to be to the field I’ve devoted myself to for decades, has made me realize just how integral I am.  I have been teaching part-time at community colleges and universities in the DMV for about 15 years. At the onset, I felt as many in my position probably have: adjunct work was the consolation prize. I took the abuse about failure and not being good enough to be full time or tenured because I thought I deserved it.

However, while both those things may be true about myself, the statistics about the academic job market reflect that the academic system is also a failure.

Luckily, I’ve stopped thinking of my position in these terms. I am great at what I do: I’m invested in my students, I’m committed to my field, I attend (on my own dime) conferences, symposia, and local lectures that keep me up to date on research and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, I fulfill a need in the system.  That’s something that seems to be lost in this: I’m not the desperate one. The adjunct, the graduate student, the post-doc, the non-tenured are not disposable.  Not only is it common decency to provide a living wage and a safety net for any worker, this respect should be given to those upon who we so desperately rely. Instead, so many of us are left to rely on luck.

Despite our part-time status, we are not contingent humans. The problem now resides in a system that has not evolved to understand our power and our worth.  Academia is not doing me a favor. It’s the other way around

Again, I survive the system purely because of luck, but many others do not have the same support system. Thus, we need to come together within the profession. It’s time for us to collectively bargain for rights we deserve. We didn’t lose the game, we didn’t fail, the job system changed, so our approach to it needs to change as well.  I know people will balk at the idea of unionization and detail the varied reasons it won’t fix the problem.  However, at this point we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (There really is a Simpsons reference for every occasion).

Luckily, I know I will survive both cancer and a life as an adjunct professor, but I’d like colleagues in a position like mine to have the same outlook.

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Ringing the infusion center’s ceremonial gong to signal my last round.  More victory photos to come…

In addition to writing publicly about this very personal struggle, my cancer diagnosis caused me to do something else uncharacteristic: I purchased a book of encouraging quotes.

             “When you come out of the storm,

               You won’t be the same person

               Who walked in.

               That’s what this storm’s all about.”

                                         -Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

Going Home

Facebook’s been reminding me that it’s been eight years since I defended my dissertation and got my job. I love these reminders, although I shake my head at them, incredulous that so much time has passed.

There’s something nice about knowing the buildings are (mostly) still there.

Although I still live in the same metropolitan area, I don’t make it back to my PhD institution very often. Life just doesn’t take me that direction more than once every year or two, and that’s okay. I’m fine with the nostalgic, honey-glow tinge of contentment and wistfulness I feel when I retrace part of my old commute or come within a few blocks of the place.

Last week, I went back as an invited guest – a panel discussant, no less!- which really felt like getting to go home. The whole afternoon was far too short and I saw too few people, but for a couple of hours, I basked in the feeling of being back on campus, back in a world that was – even at its toughest moments – one I loved dearly.

There was also this new, unfamiliar sense of feeling like I’d accomplished something. After eight years, none of the graduate students are the same ones I knew (which is good!). The faculty are still there, their offices somewhat smaller and less intimidating than I recall. I retraced my steps in one of my favorite buildings. I almost went into the (newly remodeled) library, but stopped myself because my memories are better. I paused outside the entrance of the history building, and for a moment, it almost felt like I was heading back to class as a student again.

Last week, I came back to talk to current graduate students about teaching K-12 with a PhD. This is the type of professional development that didn’t exist when I was going through – we heard lots of talks from professors, and lots of job talks from prospective hires, but the department – and the school – never provided resources for thinking about jobs outside of academia.

We were on the cusp of all that, even if the department didn’t fully recognize it yet: some of my cohort and the cohorts around me went into academia, but several of us became K-12 teachers. As I finished my dissertation, plenty of people were starting to talk about so-called #alt-ac jobs and working outside of academia, the beginnings of conversations about what you can do with a history PhD. It’s only in the past few years, however, that there’s been sustained efforts to help students explore their options more fully.

There’s still a lot to do, but on Friday, I came home again, this time as a graduate who’s been successful in her career, flourished, even managed to get a little writing in, and, well – if I didn’t get the career everyone talked about when I was doing my PhD, I certainly got a career that was right for me.

We K-12 teachers spend a lot of time teaching, but we don’t often get to spend time talking about what that career looks like. Over the course of two hours, the other panelists and I dove deep, telling the students about the schools where we teach, explaining what our daily lives look like, answering the grad students’ questions, and generally trying to demystify all we do. We tried to offer resources and things to think about, putting ourselves, just a bit, back in the shoes we used to wear, thinking of what might have helped us back when we were on the other side of the table.

I don’t know whether any of these graduate students will decide to seriously consider a career teaching in independent schools, but I am happy to know that people are inviting in conversations and getting students to think beyond the tenure track.

Eight years ago, I helped open a door. It wasn’t anything new; after all, the other panelists have been teaching much longer than I have. But every time a graduate student steps through a different doorway, we help expand the possibilities for those who haven’t yet arrived.

And we’ll leave a light on, always happy to come home again to share what we’ve learned and help others find the path that suits them.

A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Transition (Part IV)

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Thank goodness for this obligation opportunity to reflect. And it really is an opportunity. Because meditating on your experiences and coming up with a narrative about your progress (or lack thereof) can lead to an unexpected diagnosis or even generate a much-needed sense of accomplishment.

Reading through my co-bloggers’ posts on their year-in-writing has stirred up feelings of relief, empathy, joy, and excitement. Our relationship to writing is constantly in flux, and we are paying attention to that. We are thing-searchers, as Lynn says, and we respond to that impulse. At least we try to.

Of course we don’t always meet our writing or professional goals, and sometimes we read this as a failure (especially when we set *really* high goals for ourselves—and when we have full time jobs, loved ones, and other passions to attend to!). I met some of my goals in 2018, but not all of them. Who ever does?

I’ve been in transition this year, which has meant a lot of writing for committees (translation: I’ve written all the statements). But what else have I put on paper?  Continue reading “A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Transition (Part IV)”

The Spaces In Between

There are life-changing moments, and there are life-changing moments.  There are the ways you hold those life-changing moments in your memory: that sense of who you were before, and who you’ve been since, and how pivotal that moment was in your life. Over time, you take it as a given: of course that was such a life-changing thing, and of course it’s changed who you were and where your life was headed. Only one day, you wake up and realize that it’s the thing you never talk about, at least not online.

It’s been ten years since my life-changing event. Ten years ago, nearly halfway through my first pregnancy, we lost our son.

This is the thing I don’t talk about, at least not to you or any of my friends or even really with my family. This has become the private grief that my husband and I share. It’s become the thing that shaped so much of who I’ve become, the thing that I think most people forget, especially as the years pass, and especially as I have a vibrant almost-five-year-old rocking my world today.

No, they don’t forget. We just don’t talk about it, and that’s okay. But ten years on, I still think about it every day. I still hit every March and try to pin down exactly when it happened, because ten years on, I can’t quite remember – and that’s okay, because ten years on, it’s not really something that you cry about any more. Not most of the time.

A wise friend told me, back then, that time passing would help. That getting through the milestones like when the baby would have been born, and when the baby would have walked and talked, and when the baby would have started kindergarten – all those things would hurt, but would also help make it better.

(Those were the easy parts, but not so much the parts where you watch your friends start growing families while you sit back and wait a little longer and screw your courage to the sticking place.)

I didn’t come here today to grieve, although maybe I did a little. Mostly, I wanted to write about what happened after, since I was in my third year of graduate school when I lost my son, and only two months away from my comprehensive exams and getting my dissertation prospectus approved.

If you’re not in grad school or academia, that may sound weird, but I don’t care. These are the things we never talk about, but the telling is worth it.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood. – Sondheim

Continue reading “The Spaces In Between”

The Long Twinge of Grief of the Left-Behind

In his novel Paper Towns, author-historian-vlogger-nerdfighter-extraordinaire John Green writes that “It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”

Well, it is. But it isn’t.

I “left academia” nearly seven years ago, and even though I’m incredibly happy with where I landed, I think there will always be that twinge that pops up every-so-often, that wistful longing of “if only I could have made it.”eastman_johnson_-_the_girl_i_left_behind_me_-_smithsonian

I’m not always very good with staying up on Twitter, but about two weeks ago I caught Erin Bartram’s post on leaving academia the day she tweeted about it. In “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind,” she writes eloquently and passionately about her decision to leave academia, to not pursue another round of the academic job market, and the grief, of course, that comes with that.

I nodded as I read it. I’ve been there. A bit differently, of course, but I’ve been there, and I have felt that.

Continue reading “The Long Twinge of Grief of the Left-Behind”

Balance vs Wholeness

In last week’s blog post, my colleague Tanya reflected on the rush of October – that “month of muchness,” as she keenly calls it. It is a month of feeling unsettled, she explained: a month of building momentum into winter; a month where nothing ever seems to get quite done.

I relate to this sentiment. October has been a blur of continual work and life events. Just this past weekend alone, I hosted a birthday party for my son, went to two other social events, and hosted two work events (family group hikes connected to my business Super Nature Adventures) . The fleeting daylight is a reminder that soon the holiday season will also begin, and before that (and before Thanksgiving!), my family is also planning a trip to Japan (more on that in a later post).

Continue reading “Balance vs Wholeness”

Emotional Juggling Act

For the last week, I have been busy working on a new business project with my husband called Super Nature Adventures that I plan to launch this month. This project stems from my lifelong love the outdoors and will feature monthly subscriptions of adventure packets. Each will focus on a different family trail in the Pacific Northwest. This has all been very daunting, but also very exciting, especially in the last few days as we’ve been smoothing out the final details for the project. Yet at the same time, my teaching still lingers in the background. Just this week, I began teaching a class that will likely be my last one as an adjunct on a topic related to my dissertation, no less.

It would be an understatement to say that this juggle been a challenge, and not only in the ways that I had expected when I laid out this game plan to make sure I had some income while I was working on the business launch. I knew that juggling two kinds of work would be stressful, and I had anticipated such common challenges as learning a new culture. What has caught me off guard is the emotional work of this juggling act. I am at the starting point, but also must attend to the closure of a chapter in my life. This simultaneous process of closure and change has brought forth emotions that had been lying dormant since I first walked across that stage to be hooded for my PhD. And yet simultaneously I am so so eager to move on.  Each side of this equation comes with so many competing emotions that some days I feel like I am having an identity crisis.

Continue reading “Emotional Juggling Act”

Too Many PhDs?

We don’t have any right admitting PhD candidates when there aren’t any jobs for them.

In the past month, I’ve been in this conversation at least four times. It’s a little funny to hear it now, in 2017, when the academic job market has been failing since the late 1970s.  The job market for academic tenure-track jobs is so terrible there is no need to go into it here because it has been written about ad nauseam. I’m only half-joking when I say that after porn, it’s probably the most commonly searched topic on google.

Still, I don’t think that producing fewer Phds is the answer. We want a less educated populace why?

If you think about our nation, or even our planet as a collective, it is in all of our best interests to educate people who are capable of and who want to be educated. The public can only benefit from having non-academic PhDs among its ranks, in every possible sector of work. In my opinion, the more PhDs in the world, the better. It doesn’t matter what the degree is in, only that we produce people who are able to more easily see through bullshit, think critically, excel in analysis, examine the providence of a source,  and create reasonable, thoughtful arguments. These skills are something every workplace could benefit from. So no, I don’t think universities have an obligation to scale down how many PhDs they produce.

HOWEVER, and this is a pretty big however,  I’m not saying that you, yourself, personally should be in the PhD program. It is important to weigh out the benefits of society against the benefits of the individual. And of course, in this situation you get to put yourself first.

As an individual, it may not be in your best interest, financial or otherwise, to do a PhD. There are so many reasons to not do a PhD  that I could never list them all, and for many,  spending time in grad school could be disastrous.

For others though, the PhD can open doors that weren’t previously open.

Although the odds of getting a tenure-track academic job are not in my favor, I don’t regret doing the PhD at all.  It was the best possible way for me to spend my 20s. I got paid a decent stipend to read and write about topics that I’m deeply passionate about (pirates, mainly), and for the first time in my life, became eligible for grants that allowed me to see the world: I did all-expenses-paid research in Ghana, the Netherlands, Germany,  Sweden, and England, and presented my findings at conferences in places like Barbados and Curaҫao. I analyzed historic documents that had been untouched for centuries. I was the first living person to know things. Nothing compares to that rush.

And now? Now I am credentialed. I have a PhD in history from a top-20 University. That has allowed me to have a super-engaging job working with a digital archive, and to do really fun side projects as a historical consultant. I’ve worked on films and now, a pirate-themed tabletop role-playing game. I’m also writing trade history books- the kind filled with pirate battles and blood that you give to your dad on his birthday. I’ve been invited to really fun speaking engagements, both academic and not, and I love getting my pirate on in all of these diverse ways.

So maybe I’m lucky, but I think if you have a passion and can take the possible hit in earning potential, then go for it. If you think about doing the PhD as a necessary step on the road to getting a job as a professor, you are going to have a miserable time of it. But if you think of doing the PhD itself as the prize at the end of the rainbow, it will yield some unexpectedly cool outcomes. No, there are no guarantees, but how many people in this world get to spend half a decade or more doing exactly what they want and love? And then how many more get to take away all of those experiences and find real-life applications for them?

This might be the millennial within talking, but there’s something to be said for following your passion, and I think sometimes in academia we can feel peer pressure that discourages us from doing that. But life is short and uncertain, and it’s just not worthwhile to ignore your heart.

From PhD to Here: Towards a Life outside of Academia

This May will mark my second #withaphd anniversary, and with it, the second year since I began to move away from academia and towards some kind of postac life with a PhD that has nothing to do with teaching or academic research. While I still currently work as an adjunct instructor, much as changed since the day I crossed the stage to pick up that diploma.

For one, I am no longer in that immobilizing period that is often called post-dissertation slump or post-dissertation blues. I am at home with myself in the space I am now, and I am comfortable talking about why I am leaving academia. Moreover, behind the scenes, I have been working on a business that (fingers crossed) I hope to launch this spring (when I get there, I promise to write about it).

In this blog post, I want to share some tips and tools that have helped me over the past couple years as I have transitioned from uncertainty towards a spirit of exploration and potential. I learned many of these tips from others that came before me, and I write in spirit of helping all those who might where I was a couple years ago. Continue reading “From PhD to Here: Towards a Life outside of Academia”