50 Reflections on Academia

by Peeper Hersey-Powers

Content warnings for: discussion of mental health, academic stress, and unhealthy behaviors in academic settings

“Despite the extent to which I try and motivate myself, there are still many instances in which I fail. I choose classes that fascinate me and are within fields of study that I have had the academic freedom to pursue, and I generally just enjoy learning! But sometimes, this isn’t enough. Even my external motivators—the looming possibility of bad grades for late/poor assignments, the need for good grades in order to graduate and find a job—cannot inspire me with enough energy to finish all that I need to do all of the time… When it is common for students to experience burnout, and for the completion of assignments to become a demonstration of willpower rather than willingness, is it a failure of students when they cannot consistently meet the standards of the system? While I still consider myself to be learning and growing in all of my classes (and enjoy them!), I find myself thinking about what I am growing towards.”

My New Year’s Resolution for 2020 was to learn how to “fail better.” I had no idea how many opportunities I’d have to work on that in this chaotic and stressful year… Haha…

My initial ideas of failure were along the lines of “be okay with getting less than an A on an assignment! :)” which—as the year progressed, the pandemic happened, I moved home from France, and I became more burnt-out and stressed from juggling my home responsibilities and work/school—turned into “just turn this assignment in late,” or “what if you just didn’t turn this in?”—which, interestingly, turned into, “what if you went and ate dinner with your family instead of eating while working?” and “this isn’t worth getting stressed over; work until midnight and then just go to bed, please.” I’m not sure how, but I think my goal of “learning to fail” actually became (or maybe was always) to learn to better take care of (and forgive) myself. It is still a work in progress, and I’m kind of in awe that it took a global crisis to learn how to be more gentle with myself, but I’m glad I’m finally making these steps regardless.

“I am constantly torn between needing to succeed and self-care; I want my present to be “a place of meaning,” but my environment keeps telling me that this present moment is only here so that the next one, and the one after that, can arrive (bell hooks, Teaching Community, 165)… However, there are some moments in which I can feel present, and try to stop “postponing being alive to the future” (172). The small communities I find within my friends, and in my tabletop game groups are some of the only grounding aspects of my college career. There is no competition, no fear of failing or conflict, only an excitement to tell a story and see where the narrative takes us. I just wish I could find ways in which to take these feelings with me everywhere, and also not feel guilty for taking the time I need in the present moment…”

Despite the growth I have made this year in trying to take care of myself, I still struggle with making a present a place of meaning, especially right now. I keep thinking to myself, “I just have to take a year off to rest and work and prepare for grad school applications (which is perhaps already a little contradictory and needs to be unpacked),” “I just have to get into and get through grad school,” and most frequently, “one this pandemic is over I can…”

It’s difficult to keep myself in the present when it is so troubling, and so I am trying to forgive myself this struggle for now, especially being separated from many of the people who help ground me.

I hope to learn how to keep myself grounded and present when so much around me is now virtual. I am going to try and reach out to those around me for support when I need it. I am going to keep telling stories with my friends. Many of my communities have been disrupted, but I will find them again. I will hold myself accountable and maintain my support systems and communities throughout my time in graduate school. The work that I want to do and the changes I wish to make cannot happen in isolation.

“We internalize and normalize…  this mind/body split, which does nothing except harm ourselves and continue to perpetuate the idea that it is normal—acceptable or expected, even!—to put ourselves through undue bodily (not eating, sleeping), emotional (repressing emotions as to not cloud our thoughts, increased instability as caused by lack of physical needs being met), and mental (studying for hours without breaks, cramming for tests, etc) stress. While these examples are on the more extreme end, even engaging in less extreme behaviors along these lines fuel the unspoken idea that we are mechanical “seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 15).”

What is the line between compartmentalizing and repression? I have often found myself overwhelmed this year by a variety of factors, most of which have been out of my control, and although those around me who tell me to “compartmentalize” and “forget, if just for an hour” have always come from a place of well-meaning, it still often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The mind-body split is one of the things I worry about most in graduate school. Will ignoring my own needs be expected? Unspoken? How can I make sure I best take care of myself and encourage those around me to do the same? How can I look into how my potential graduate schools view student organizing? Is addressing how an institution exploits students just a pipe dream?

No assignment is worth jeopardizing my health. I have done enough harm to my body in my past academic endeavors, and am still recovering in many ways from these destructive patterns of behavior. I will not treat myself like a machine. I will not let others treat me or my peers like machines.

“Although I have even spent a lot of my time in therapy working on mindfulness, I cannot shake the grasp that the educational system has, and continues to, instill within me. As hooks explains, ‘education as we conventionally know it plays a crucial role as the location where students learn to embrace the values that go with the status quo’ (bell hooks, Teaching Community, 166).”

. . .

“LEDA tries to sell the first-generation, low-income college experience as sometimes difficult, but nothing we won’t be prepared for… They help “high-achieving” students while refraining from advocating for the implied “low-achieving” students. The LEDA social media accounts rarely, if at all, use the phrase ‘all students.’ They institutionalize the ‘revolution’ that they persuade us we are a part of, while simultaneously training us to fit in into the structures that continue to marginalize and harm us.”

What does it mean when we write about queerness in Classics? What does it mean to write about queerness if nothing is done with it to help actual, living queer people? What draws me, as a queer classicist, to the field? Why do I want to study queerness/transness in antiquity? How can I plan to help my queer and trans communities while pursuing these studies? How can I make sure my work is meaningful, and not just ticking a box for diversity without being a conduit for growth in the field?

I already struggle with wanting to make myself palatable to the mold of the academy. In other classes (not this one) I often temper my speech. I hesitate to correct people misgendering me. I wonder if I should try to speak, to act, more masculine. I won’t, because I don’t want to, but I always wonder what implications that this will have on my future opportunities.

I am still—and I think rightfully so—skeptical of the potential to make meaningful change within the system; I still want to change students’ lives, and help those like myself, but I worry about the extent to which that will be possible.

I will do my best to make change. I will continue to internalize my thought that if the field of Classics cannot change, I don’t want it to survive.

I will not temper myself. I do not want my future classrooms to promote any status quo as we know it today. I will be critical of my pedagogy and the subject matter that I teach. I will bring humanity to my classes.


Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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