I’m kind of scared of the academy/ I think my parents are proud of me/ I just wish I knew how to be comfortable here/ I never feel like I’m allowed to breathe/Rubbing shoulders with these old nerds/ Rockin’ sweater vests in they office hours/ Eating hors d’oeuvres while I soul search/ Tryna make some sense of the ivory tower (official music video)
Sammus, “1080p” (Sammus is the stage name of Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, an Ithaca, NY based rap artist, producer, and Cornell PhD student in Science and Technology Studies)
How do we as junior scholars try to engage the public? While there are grants for the public humanities engagement and community projects specific to our home institutions, nonetheless these avenues are often less accessible to us as graduate students, not to mention the varying levels of institutional support and privilege. Beyond these structural concerns, I believe there are psychological ones, perhaps related to imposter syndrome – what can we have to contribute to a broader audience or even to our peers when we are struggling to establish ourselves as academics? There is also a larger conversation to be had about the pressures of the neoliberal higher education environment that pressures us to develop additional “gigs” on top of our usual workloads that can expand our CVs and open other career opportunities while also perhaps making us feel guilty or even invalidate or punish us for attempting to pursue these interests.
How do we attend to these other forms of intellectual engagement as work and as performance?
I don’t have any answers, but I do have stories. In this blog post, I will outline my own journey as the co-host of the iTunes podcast PhDivas as well as the trajectories I’ve observed of fellow humanities graduate students who have expressed themselves in writing and music. What have I seen that actually works for other people? What actually works for me? How do we attend to these other forms of intellectual engagement as work and as performance?
The transition from crafting personal blog posts to writing and editing in a professional alt-ac capacity is the most obvious way for a humanities graduate student to hone their skills and perhaps dabble into alt-ac possibilities. I realize I am saying nothing new here, but perhaps recounting some of the successes I’ve seen will help to motivate those on the fence. Try writing on Medium as the next step beyond keeping a personal blog; developed by one of the founders of Twitter, Medium is a free blog publishing platform that effective integrates social media, enabling articles to go viral. During the last few years, I’ve seen friends combine their writing abilities with their research and analytical talents and go onto fulltime jobs at Slate, BuzzFeed, and even part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the LA Times. Others supplement their intellectual lives by contributing pieces drawing on their areas of expertise to publications complementary to their academic interests like the Ploughshares blog, The Nation, Jacobin, and Dissent.
For me, engaging beyond the classroom and my research means attending to my self-care and thereby suggests another way of thinking about this blog topic: what avenues of engagement can you explore that nourish you?
I am not one of these people. I admire the work of friends who balance their primary writing and scholarship with beautiful and thoughtful pieces for wider audiences in Avidly or The Guardian or Huffington Post. But perhaps I speak for some of you when I say that all forms of writing, for me, come out of the same reservoir of energy that I need to prioritize for my research. While other forms of writing do help to develop my voice and chip away at the irritating perfectionism and self-doubt that attends so much of the work we do, nonetheless, it is more of a drain on my resources. For me, engaging beyond the classroom and my research means attending to my self-care and thereby suggests another way of thinking about this blog topic: what avenues of engagement can you explore that nourish you?
PhDivas: a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide
I co-host the iTunes podcast PhDivas with my friend Liz Wayne to discuss academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide. We like to think of ourselves as a pair who embodies productive contrasts: I am a Chinese-Canadian who just finished her PhD in English literature and headed off to a postdoc at UBC, while Liz is a proud Black Mississipian scientist working on cancer research who completed her PhD in biomedical engineering and is now a postdoc at UNC Chapel-Hill.
For us, PhDivas is about building community across institutions, countries, and differences: we view our collaboration as part of a greater project of supporting women in the academy as well as people of color in higher education – of course, with a focus on women of color and Black-Asian solidarity. PhDivas is also about our own friendship: our research can often feel interminable and frustrating, but working together on a weekly basis makes certain that we have other outlets of expression that hinge upon self-care and collaboration with a best friend.
Here are a few representative episodes particularly relevant to the readers of the CSGSP blog:
The cost of doing this work goes beyond the Soundcloud fees and production time: it’s also about personal vulnerability. During my time in graduate school I have always admired the talents of Sammus aka Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, an Ithaca, NY based rap artist, producer, and fellow Cornell PhD student. Her research on sound studies and identity politics in community studios merge with her praxis as an artist rapping about being a black woman in the academy and in nerd culture. Her live performances are electrifying: I was always a fan of her new single “1080p,” but seeing her perform it at a local mental health benefit helped to underscore to me how these alternate modes of engagement are not just about professionalization, but can also be about tending to ourselves and our communities for self-care and survival.
For technical tips on academic podcasting, check out the resources at H-Net.
Please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter!
— Christine “Xine” Yao