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

 

 

 

Designing Women, Part II

My main image for organizing the course, with image from Library of Congress

Last month, I wrote about my initial work designing my Intro to History of American Women’s Rights this fall. As I think I hinted at, I want to keep checking in on this course to let you know how it’s going, hold myself accountable through this blogging process, and to document my first opportunity to teach women’s history in a high school setting.

After writing last month, I stepped away from most of my teaching work for the month of July. July became, instead, a month of reading (mostly for school), momming, and just trying to be. (Oh, there was also the several intense weeks when I wrote a book chapter related to my academic research, but that’s another story.)

Last week, I got back into the teacher prep groove a little bit. My son had his final summer camp from 9-3 each day, which gave me a break from #momming (as I’ve taken to calling it) and a few precious hours between drop-off and pick-up to pull together whatever I could. I didn’t start with Women’s History, but it’s where I ended up, and I’m feeling excited about where things landed.

Continue reading “Designing Women, Part II”

Designing Women (Part 1)

Readers, it’s summer. It’s that glorious time when teachers (like me) can kick back, relax, and just be in the peaceful bliss. (At least in theory. You probably already read a bit of my end-of-school angst and excitement here.)

I wound up spending most of my June in reading mode. It became a really good decision for me, because I had piles of pedagogy books I wanted to read and had no idea where to begin with the course planning that I so desperately want to tackle this season (also, when your kid is at a 3-hour-a-day summer camp for a week, books seem more digestible in those short spurts of time).

In the final full week of June, I began to switch gears, and readers, that’s what I wanted to talk about today: designing an intro to women’s history course for high school students.

On my first day of planning, I decided I’d document my efforts on Twitter, mostly in the hopes of keeping myself on track:

Read through to see the thread of what I worked on that day…

All in all, I felt the day was pretty successful. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted, but I made a good start. Below, I’ll expand on that process, talk about what changed later in the week, and explain where I am now. Hint: if you have ideas/experiences, please @ me!

Continue reading “Designing Women (Part 1)”

The School Year Ends

Dar Williams sings,

The summer ends and we wonder where we are 
And there you go, my friends, with your boxes in your car 
And you both look so young 
And last night was hard, you said 
You packed up every room 
And then you cried and went to bed 
But today you closed the door and said 
“We have to get a move on. 
It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead, 
We push ourselves ahead.”

“The End of Summer”

Every year when summer really does end, those words float back into my head, and they make sense then – but they also make sense now, because the end of the school year feels much the same.

It’s that sense of wistfulness in the face of impending change, which I also catch glimpses of when TS Eliot reminds me that

Photo by mahmoud on Pexels.com

  April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, 

“The Waste Land”

For teachers, summer is mostly a hopeful thing – a time of rest, if we’re smart, or exploration, if we’re lucky. It’s a moment to catch our breaths and step out on hiatus from the school building and the classroom and experience our lives in different ways. We bring our heads up from the papers we’ve spent all year marking and our students say good-bye (if we’re fortunate, not forever, but just for now), and we say hello to the million little things we’ve waited months to do. It’s that time to just be us.

Did I mention that sounds easier than it really is? At least for me, and I’m hoping I’m not alone in that.

Continue reading “The School Year Ends”

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.

Final Projects

It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s final project season. When everyone has their eyes set on summer break (myself included), it can be difficult to keep students engaged and putting effort into the last week or two of coursework. So this year, I decided to try something new.

This spring, I have been teaching a course on women writers and filmmakers in contemporary France. My students have submitted a blog-style composition that applies earlier course readings (more theoretical texts from the 1950s-70s) to contemporary events. They have also completed two close-reading papers (standard for developing analytical habits of mind for literary scholars). The final project — the one they’re working on now at the end of the semester — allows them to transform one of their close reading papers into a multimodal text. These projects are being created in an online format for a general audience (i.e., not just their professor). My hope is that this activity will encourage them to consider (1) how engaging with course texts can go beyond the classroom walls and (2) how and why they might talk about this course material to their peers. This links to a bigger question: What will you take away from this course? (How) Have the course’s readings influenced the way you think about identity politics and everyday life in France and in the US? Continue reading “Final Projects”

When There is a Mission

This March, I took two trips for work that ended up having a profound effect on the way I see my job and my place within it. I think this is a good place to talk about that.

My job involves grants administration. Vanderbilt is part of a consortium of five universities in which the Mellon Foundation has taken an interest to facilitate digital humanities collaboration. My job is quite broadly defined- I assist the PI on the grant to do whatever is necessary to help ensure that all the things that were promised in the grant happen.  A big part of that is facilitating collaborations between faculty and staff at our partner institutions in the consortium, and the best way to do that is to build relationships in person.

Two of our universities are in Nashville as well- Fisk and TSU. Relationships between Fisk and TSU and Vanderbilt have been taking place for a long time. But we also have Berea up North in Kentucky, and Tougaloo down South in Mississippi, and the distance between the three of our campuses meant that collaborations hadn’t been as long-standing. This is exciting for me- going to new places, meeting new faces, and getting to feel like the good news fairy. I kept repeating, “I know someone at a partner institution who works on that! Let me connect you,” or “That would make an amazing collaborative grant application, write that up!” and “there’s definitely money in the grant for that kind of faculty development.”

A DH Skill-share session at Berea, with faculty, staff, and students from Berea, TSU, Fisk, and Vanderbilt.

It was also fun to help facilitate important discussions and presentations. There were Digital Humanities skill-shares, planning for future events, teaching talks, postdoctoral presentations, and so much crucial foundation-building work.

But beyond that, what was amazing about these two trips this month was the feel of both Tougaloo and Berea. Both schools are smaller and deeply mission-driven. Tougaloo College is an HBCU just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, built on the grounds of the Boddie Plantation. Just opposite the old mansion in direct juxtaposition to it, is a church that has hosted many of our world’s finest Civil Rights thinkers: MLK, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, and Stokely Carmichael, to name just a small selection. During the Civil Rights era, Tougaloo Campus sheltered Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists, and their Special Collections room holds a fragment of a cross that white supremacists burned on that campus as a reaction to this.

One of the trip’s highlights was getting to meet John Johnson, who worked with Professor Phoenix Savage to produce an exhibit funded by one of the collaborative grants.

John Johnson poses with some of his photographs for the “Black at Brown” exhibit for Tougaloo’s Humanities Week, funded by the Mellon Collaborative grant through Professor Phoenix Savage.

Berea College has a similarly inspiring history. It was founded by a white Southern abolitionist, the son of a slaveholder. He was disinherited for this, and his family threatened often. Berea’s mission was to educate black and white students together, and it was the first co-ed institution in the South to accomplish this. In addition to that, the founders of Berea wanted their students to never have to pay tuition, so they committed to fundraising to ensure none would. That promise lasts to this day, and as a result the majority of Berea’s students are first-generation students and/or come from households with limited income. In rural Appalachia, where opportunities for economic advancement are few and far between, Berea College stands out as a beacon of hope.

Though Berea and Tougaloo each have their own distinct feels, they both share a vibrant commitment to mission. Each person I spoke with cared deeply about students, about social justice, and about creating a better world through education. They reminded me of why I was attracted to this world, and of how far education has propelled me. I too was the first person in my family to go to college, and the school in which I landed (the University of Stirling in Scotland) was also an institution with a mission. Set in Scotland’s coal country after the closure of the mines, it too attracted faculty who cared about reversing the economic depression of the region through teaching a specific population of students. All of my professors were so cognizant of the additional challenges first generation students faced, and despite being overworked and underpaid, they gave so generously of themselves to ensure that we could reach our goals. They did so much with what they have, just like the faculty at Tougaloo and Berea.

March should have zapped my energy with two additional business trips thrown into the busiest part of the semester. Instead, I came away feeling renewed, hopeful, and excited about the future. Visiting these two places helped remind me of why I do what I do, and why the long hours are so incredibly worth it.