It’s mid-February: although the winter here on the West Coast has been unseasonably cold, spring is near, a hopeful thaw on the horizon. As the hours of daylight increase and the crocuses start to bloom, academics across the country are losing sleep, some with nails bitten to the quick, others with churning stomachs. Spring means SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) and graduate-school-acceptance announcement season, and with it, either a quick dashing of dreams or a buoyant sense of relief once students and postdoctoral hopefuls open their letters.
This isn’t my first SSHRC-rodeo. One Masters’ application, five PhD applications (one successful!), and two postdoctoral applications later, I’ve gotten used to the inevitable long wait through autumn and winter and have even gotten used to the stomach-churning anxiety I always face when I am about to tear open that envelope. I am, happy to say, much better at dealing with the disappointment of unsuccessful applications. I can finally say, without pretense or posturing, that I think I do good work, and that my work matters. The more I’ve learned about the scarcity built into the academic system, and after having seen so many fellow brilliant scholars find themselves coming up empty-handed in funding cycles and in job applications, the easier I’ve found it to sigh and grumble about how the system is the problem, rather than me and my inherent failings as a scholar or as a person. Last year, only 156 out of 851 applications received postdoctoral fellowships. I know, in my heart of hearts, that it’s not “personal.” I know that it’s not about “me.”
Note that I said “easier,” not that it has become entirely easy. Like most academics, the lengthy time that I have spent within the ivory tower has meant that in one way or another, my identity and my feelings of self-worth have become enmeshed in my work and in others’ appraisals of it. I take my work seriously; always have. As a child who had few friends, excelling at school was my way of feeling good in the world; no matter how many times I was excluded from social events, I knew that I could work towards the satisfaction of a report card full of As. Of course, as I would later learn, excellence is not the only reason to engage in academic pursuits. During my graduate work, curiosity thankfully took over as the primary motivation for spending long hours engrossed in my research. And yet, in the continued absence of a romantic partner and children, I still take it perhaps more seriously than I should. Work has come to fill my life in a way that I don’t always want it to. After an intense, life-altering trauma that unfolded over the past year, work became a lifeline; at times it was literally the only thing I felt I still wanted to live for. In moments of denial, I used work to stuff down my feelings of shame; it was easier to focus on how I needed to publish more articles and how I needed to be a better academic than it was to focus on worrying about whether or not I would truly end up damaged and alone. Damaged, alone, and without even an academic career to hang my hat on: this is the shame story that I carry with me into this year’s SSHRC season, the oozing narrative that bubbles beneath the surface.
Perhaps my situation is extreme, but I am willing to wager that to equal or lesser degrees, my fellow academics’ relationship to their academic success is somehow related to the shame we are dying to keep quiet. And so, while “UGH, I didn’t get the SSHRC again” may be a simple expression of frustration with the precarity and competitiveness of academia for some, I suspect that for others, it’s often code for “I’m worried that my work isn’t good enough” which is a slippery slide into the all-too-familiar “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not good enough” is the murky swamp of shame that envelops so many of us, and that so many of us are told not to talk about. Academia is where we have full freedom to analyze emotions—sorry, “affect”—but very little freedom or privilege to feel or display emotions, especially for academics who face oppression at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and religion. Even senior academics with the most privilege, I’m sure, close the office door and open their grant letters or teaching evaluations when they know they won’t be disturbed, lest the warm hot rush of shame washes over them when some anonymous former student talks about how horrible they are. For those of us who have experienced shame early in our educational careers—the elementary school teacher who called us stupid, the professor who assured us that we’d never make it in graduate school—the stakes of academic success aren’t just about financial resources and institutional affiliations: they’re about proving that we’re good enough. No matter how successful, no matter whether we do end up finishing that PhD or securing that tenure-track position, those formative moments of shame come back to haunt us again and again. Maybe it’s a hyper-critical parent, a legacy of trauma, the difficulties of marriage, the anxiety of parenthood: we carry so much with us into our lives; so much seeps into things like job applications and funding decisions. Many of us aren’t just using our CVs as documents to list our accomplishments; we’re using them as inventories to keep trying to prove our worthiness.
Dr. Brené Brown, whose research on shame, vulnerability, courage, and wholeheartedness has offered a vital framework for many, points out that shame needs three things to thrive: secrecy, silence, and judgement. How many of us attempt to keep our failed job interviews, our rejected articles, and our feelings of academic unworthiness quiet? How many of us are so afraid to admit that we are terrified about the job market, about our dwindling finances, and about the deep spirals of depression and anxiety that we find ourselves in when we’re not “making it” in academia the way we were expected to? How many tenure-track professors, because they are seen to “have it all,” quietly move through their entire careers feeling like a fraud, never able to talk about the shame of struggling with impostor syndrome? How many of us joke about our dependence on alcohol or food to numb our feelings because we know that we can talk about the things we all do to deal with disappointment and shame, but not about the disappointment and shame itself?
Just to be clear, I not advocating for academia to become a place where we either psychoanalyze each other to death or where we try to build some emotional utopia where we talk about our feelings of shame all day. Good therapists exist for a reason (even though they are usually cost-prohibitive for many academics, but I digress…) What I do wish academia could be is a place where at the very least, we are not discouraged from seeking out help or from seeking out moments of connection when we are struggling simply because we have normalized anxiety, isolation, judgement, and competitiveness. I wish that for every five workshops we hold on how to write a SSHRC proposal, how to polish our CVs, and how to nail a job interview, we had one workshop where we talked earnestly and honestly about how to take care of ourselves and of each other. I wish that for every series on professional development and teaching, senior academics modelled vulnerability and acknowledged struggle. I wish that for every hundred graduate student get-togethers at the pub, we had one afternoon where we could sit down and say, without fear of judgement, “I’m having a hard time.” These moments do happen, don’t get me wrong. But often, they must happen secretly and covertly because otherwise, it is not safe. Express too much vulnerability and you’ll be seen as unable to complete your work because you are too fragile or anxious. Divulge feelings of shame and people will weaponize it against you. This is the reality of our world, by and large. Academia is not exceptional in that way.
7.5 years ago, just as I was about to start my PhD, I was having intense feelings of anxiety. The professor for whom I was working at the time informed me that because of my anxiety, I would fail at my PhD and would be better off withdrawing from the program even before beginning it. 30-year-old me, who is assertive and tries to be vulnerable-yet-courageous wants to march up to that professor and say “how dare you shame vulnerability and reinforce the notion that only the most unemotional and cold-hearted can ever succeed in this world?” 30-year-old assertive, vulnerable-yet-courageous me also wonders what kind of shame and anxiety that professor had to swallow and bury to get through their own career. I am guessing that it is not an insignificant amount. I have developed empathy for my own struggling self; I try to cultivate as much empathy as I can for others who hurt those they might see themselves reflected in. 30-year-old assertive, vulnerable-yet-courageous me feels a lot of empathy for the 22-year-old who was made to feel so goddamn ashamed of herself, has gratitude for the professor who eventually talked me back into the PhD, and constantly fears that we have lost out on developing so many brilliant scholars because their vulnerability was seen as a detriment to their academic career, rather than an asset.
I’m not certain how to revolutionize academia, but I do know that in seasons like this, seasons where emotions run high, that we can care for each other. When our students, our colleagues, our friends, our partners open up to us to say “I didn’t get the SSHRC,” instead of immediately railing against funding bodies or grumbling about someone else not deserving it, what if we asked “how do you feel?” or “what do you need?” If we hear “I didn’t get into a PhD program, and I’m really scared about what this means for my future” or “I’m failing at academia, just like I’m failing at my relationships” can we simply say “I’m here for you if you’d like to talk about it?” Brené Brown makes clear that shame cannot survive when empathy is present. Not sympathy: not the pity of “there but for the grace of national funding bodies or tenure committees go I.” Empathy isn’t tripping over ourselves trying to run away from other people’s suffering by saying “well, cheer up, you’ve always got next year!” or “I’m SURE you’ll get it the next time.” Empathy is sitting with the fact that this is hard. Rejection hurts. Precarity aches. The sexism and racism and classism of the academy kills, no more so than when we are made to internalize its violence and shame.
For my part, I am doing my best to prepare myself to receive my SSHRC results. Part of this preparation has been to try and be curious about my anxiety, to sit with my discomfort, and to speak the shame that lurks in the background so that it doesn’t consume me. The PhD may have been a difficult and rewarding undertaking, but nothing will be more difficult and more rewarding than truly knowing and accepting that no matter what the result—post-doc or no post-doc—that my worthiness as a human being stays the same, neither augmented nor diminished. I promise you, your worthiness does too.