Tag Archives: privilege

Secondary Losses

I recently discovered the Speaking Grief website, which captured my attention with its big “Let’s get better at grief” banner. If you or a loved one are struggling with grief, I highly recommend that you check out the website, which takes a humane and compassionate approach to grief and includes a link to the organization’s documentary on grief.

In exploring the website, I came across an explanation of “secondary loss.” As the website explains, “the death of a loved one is considered the primary loss” and “experiences that flow from that death are called secondary losses.” The website lists categories in which secondary losses typically occur as support systems, home, dreams, identity, hopes, financial stability, faith, health, relationships, sense of belonging, and self worth. Another website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, describes secondary losses as “unanticipated changes in your life created by the primary loss.

At just about six months since Tom’s death, I am feeling several secondary losses:  

  • My identity as a wife and caregiver. Although “widow” has always seemed like a scary word to me, dripping with negative and even evil connotations (probably because of pop culture references to widows and a family member’s romantic relationship with a widow who was later convicted of having murdered at least one of her late husbands—you can’t make this stuff up), I find it feels like a better fit than “single person.” What it means to be a widow, to move through the world as a widow, is still unclear to me. A lot of what I do everyday is different as a widow than as a wife and caregiver. Whereas many hours of my day were taken up with being a wife and caregiver, I now have more time to myself and no one to be accountable to for it. That sounds lovely on the surface, but I am learning that it can feel rather depressing to realize that no one cares how I spend my time. Everything is disorienting—I am doing many of the things I’ve always done, but doing them as a widow makes it feel like a new, unfamiliar place. Cooking dinner for one person isn’t at all the same as cooking dinner for yourself and another. Eating dinner alone is certainly different from eating with a partner.
  • Hopes and dreams: Tom and I had many shared hopes and dreams. Many of our shared dreams were quiet ones: for example, he had started coming with me in his motorized wheelchair when I walked the dogs in the morning and we were looking forward to that continuing. We were hoping that once COVID restrictions were lifted, he could visit the rehab facility he “graduated” from to see his favorite therapists and show them how far he had come. Some of our dreams were more grandiose: we were going to buy him a trackchair so he could enjoy being outside (and he wanted to get the snow plow attachment so he could be a neighborhood hero all winter long). We were going to find a way to get him out on the river again and to travel. I was researching wheelchair-friendly cities. I had learned that the public beaches in Oregon, Tom’s favorite place, have beach wheelchairs available. Now all of those plans are irrelevant.
  • Energy: I am emotionally exhausted all the time. Grieving is hard emotional work that does not respect boundaries. In response to the exhaustion, I find myself napping more that I used to and unable to concentrate on intellectual tasks. I notice that I often walk so slowly I sometimes wonder mid-stride, “Am I going to tip over?” (This thought doesn’t speed me up at all—it simply adds to the suspense.) I have not tipped over yet, but every walk is a new adventure.
  • Confidence about going to new places: With my vision impairment, going to unfamiliar places is always a little nerve-wracking to me. Tom had gotten really good at anticipating things that would (often literally) trip me up, like badly marked steps, uneven sidewalks and potholes, signs that lack contrast, and the like. Navigating new places on my own is possible and I am sure I’ll get better it, but at this point, it is creating a lot of anxiety for me.

I have been lucky (so far) to not suffer two of the more common secondary losses, health and finances, but because they are so often experienced, I want to touch on them. Many people experience health impacts after the death of a loved one, and the New York Times actually reported recently on a study that found that parents who lost children have a higher incidence of heart attacks over time. Regarding finances, I’m quite lucky that my job is secure and pays well enough that I am not in danger of losing my house, which is a serious concern for many widows. I have been arguing with our health insurance over their denial of a very hefty bill from June 2020, but I am confident they will end up covering that.

I also want to mention that as heartbreaking and tumultuous as it is to survive Tom’s death, I have experienced some secondary gains:

  • Sense of compassion and connection to others. I have been touched by how many people have reached out to me to express sympathy and compassion for my loss. Often these conversations turn to losses they have experienced, and I am learning that nearly everyone on this planet has suffered a profound loss. This makes me feel connected to people I would not automatically feel connected to and helps me understand the context around negative behavior I sometimes see in others.
  • Identity as a writer. Although I have taught writing practice and theory for 28 years now and published scholarly work, I have never identified as a “writer.” With my blogging, CaringBridge posts, and longer-than-usual Facebook posts remembering Tom, I found not only that I enjoy memoir-type writing but that folks enjoy reading what I write. This has opened up for me the possibility of writing a book length memoir and shorter essay-length memoir pieces.
  • Confidence in my strength. Surviving the worst event I could imagine makes me feel a little bit fearless.
  • Deepened family relationships: My relationships with Tom’s immediate and extended family have grown stronger as we’ve shared memories of Tom and supported each other in grieving.
  • Much appreciation for my luck and privilege. As always, I recognize that as a white middle-class woman with tenure, the impacts of my grief are not made more challenging by racism.

Turning Toward + Relaxing into Grief

It’s been about 19 weeks since my husband Tom died and I’ve been surprised to find that after a month of fairly quiet grieving, my grieving in the last two weeks has been more dramatic and noticeable. I’ve been crying at work more than I have since my first week back in September. I’ve been crying at home in the evenings, especially after dinner, when the house and dogs are quiet and there is nothing left to distract me. I am still feeling peaceful about his actual death, but I am missing him intensely. I’ve had a few moments in the house where I was sure as I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of him, or even worse, I turned a corner expecting to see him, and he wasn’t there. Both experiences cause a sudden welling of emotion and I find myself going from totally fine to being a puddle on the floor in an instant.

I suspect that the times I’ve cried at work are related to me feeling more connected to the routines of work rather than just going through the motions, as I was for the first six weeks I was back. I’ll be walking back to my office from class and think of a funny thing that happened in class that I can’t wait to tell Tom about it and then, BAM, there’s the remembering that he’s gone. For the first six weeks or so, “Tom is dead” played like a soundtrack at very low volume in my head during every moment. Now that the soundtrack has faded, I have moments of dramatically remembering that he’s gone.

I also am spending less time absorbed in the bureaucratic aspects of his death—settling his estate, paying bills and arguing about insurance matters related to his last hospital stay, notifying people and organizations of his death, planning celebration of life events, and the like. This frees up my brain to do more grieving.

I knew from the widow support groups I’m in on Facebook that this could happen. Lots of people in those groups post about spikes in grief that come up unexpectedly or around birthdays, holidays, and other special days. With Halloween being Tom’s favorite holiday, I wondered if the end of October would trigger more dramatic grief in me. Now I have my answer. I also know from years of therapy that I can’t hurry my process or avoid it, so I’m just letting it unfold and documenting it for you. Thanks for being my audience.

Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace. Tom and I discovered Doug Kraft after Tom’s stroke, when we spent a lot of time together listening to audiobooks and Buddhist lectures and meditations on forgiveness. (I’ll blog at some point in the future about the profound role forgiveness played in Tom’s last year for both of us.) Kraft has a very open, colloquial approach to Buddhist concepts, which Tom appreciated.

To turn toward and relax into something, Kraft says we need to let go of the “preverbal, precognitive, instinctual tightening” that happens inside us when we perceive something threatening. He gives this example:

When we are about to step off the sidewalk and notice a car coming our way, the body tightens. We don’t think about it, contemplate it, or decide to stiffen. It just happens.

https://www.easingawake.com/?p=ThreeEssential

Kraft explains that the tightening itself isn’t suffering, but it’s the tightening that keeps us from turning toward and relaxing into our suffering. He says that to really experience peace, we need to turn toward and relax into our suffering. I know from my 20+ years of Buddhist practicing that this is classic Buddhist thought, and I also know that I’ve never been able to do it. Now that I am working on doing it, I realize that I’ve never actually tried to do it but rather dismissed it as an unrealistic goal. Maybe because I’m older now or maybe because I’m experiencing much more intense tightening than I have in the past, what used to appear to be an unrealistic goal now appears to be the promised land and I want to get there.

As I work consciously to turn toward and relax into my grief, I notice that one of my default strategies to avoid turning toward and relaxing into my grief is working. I find myself thinking, “I don’t have time for grief, I need to be prepping for class or revising an article draft.” In reflecting on my past, I can see this as an ongoing theme from the time my mother died when I was 12. At that time, I turned toward schoolwork and reading. Whenever I experienced a loss, I dove into schoolwork and then later, work. I received praise for my diligence around schoolwork and work, so it felt like I was doing something right. Now I see that the affirmation around schoolwork and work was misleading.

Doing well at school and at work results in tangible deliverables and rewards: good grades, a publication, a line on a resume or CV, accolades from colleagues and/or students. There are defined milestones—the end of the semester or the submitting of a manuscript. With grieving, the milestones are ambiguous. There is no external recognition of doing a good job. When someone asks me what I’ve been doing lately, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to say, “I’ve been working hard” than “I’ve been immobile on the couch crying.”

For me, turning toward involves loosening my attachment to milestones and goals. The recent resurgence of my not-quiet grieving is a reminder that milestones and goals related to grief are unrealistic and that grieving is not a linear process.

I also want to note, as I often do, how privileged I am to be in a position where I can relax my focus on job-related goals without fear of losing my job. I’m tenured, I’ve been promoted to full professor; I don’t have to worry about being judged for not publishing as much for a while or not putting 100% into my teaching this semester. I will certainly be judged, but it won’t have any consequential effect on my career. What if I were at an earlier, more precarious point in my career? I was not able to give myself the room to even think about turning toward and relaxing into grief when my grandfather died and I was working as a food server. When I experienced turmoil in my life when I was working as an adjunct or when I was pre-tenure, attending to my mental health in this way could have had catastrophic effects on my career trajectory.

Say Thank You instead of I’m Sorry

Earlier this week, some colleagues and I were discussing by email a decision that needs to be made. I tried to follow the discussion, but six weeks out from being widowed, my brain just wasn’t up to it. I couldn’t remember the context from email to email, couldn’t make myself care about the decision in the grand scheme of things, and as each new email contribution to the discussion arrived in my inbox, I felt less capable of even reading.

Finally, I sent a reply-all email that simply said, “My brain is not able to process this right now, so I am going to defer to all of you on it. Thanks for understanding.” (Actually, as proof of how unable to process anything my brain was, I actually wrote “Thanks for understand” and only noticed my mistake later when I caught a glimpse of the email in my sent folder. Nonetheless, I think my message was communicated.)

Now I can’t say if my colleagues were irritated to get my email or if they did understand or if they thought I was a big slacker for opting out of the conversation, and frankly, as a past therapist told me, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. What I do know is that I felt instantly relieved to have practiced a small bit of self-care. I set a boundary by explicitly opting out of a conversation that did not require my participation; and perhaps even more importantly, instead of apologizing for it, I thanked people in advance for their understanding.

Whereas “I’m sorry” assumes the reader will react negatively, “thank you for understanding” gives the reader the benefit of the doubt and predisposes the person to be understanding because they’ve already been thanked for being understanding. It would be awkward after being thanked to then be a jerk about it. “I’m sorry” assumes there is something to be sorry about; “thank you for understanding” assumes the reader should be understanding.

In the case of the conversation I opted out of, there is nothing for me to be sorry about. I have five brilliant colleagues who can easily handle the decision without my input. Plus, after a year of intense and exhausting caregiving and then unexpectedly being widowed, it’s normal to have limited capacity. If I were to apologize, I would imply that someone in my position should be able to actively participate in the conversation.   

I hear colleagues—mostly female—apologize regularly for things that do not merit apologies: not taking on a service role that is known to be thankless, not bringing fresh baked goods to a meeting, not being able to attend a meeting that conflicts with a child’s performance or game or pick-up time, not having print outs at a meeting at which everyone was told to do their own printing, not being able to stay beyond the scheduled end time of a meeting, needing accommodations, and I could go on. Of course, women have been conditioned to be apologetic, but those of us with privilege—and I have a ton, being a white tenured full professor—can help normalize that no one should be sorry for having healthy boundaries by stopping with all the damn apologies already.

I cringe every time I get an email that begins with an apology for taking so long to answer. Email is not for urgent communication and taking a few days to respond to an email is ok. It does not merit an apology. But the apology implies not only that the sender should have replied sooner, but that the recipient should not be taking a few days to respond to emails either. In other words, the apology implies that everyone should feel bad for not answering emails immediately, which obscures the fact that most email does not warrant an immediate response—in fact, a lot of email doesn’t warrant any response at all.

Our compulsion to apologize for having healthy boundaries that acknowledge that work is only one part of our lives actually undermines our ability to have healthy boundaries by implying to others that our boundaries are a problem. “Thank you for understanding” normalizes those healthy boundaries.

On that note, thank you for understanding that I am having surgery next week and will likely not post. 😊

Taking (or Not Taking) Leave in Academia

I want to start with a few stories about taking leave in academia:

Story #1: When I was an adjunct instructor, teaching 6-8 composition courses a semester at two different community colleges to make a living, I had a stroke. My doctors told me to take six weeks off and that I would probably recover slowly over the next year. Luckily I had health insurance, which covered the bulk of my medical expenses, but I was in a panic about how I would earn a living.

When I called the department chair at one of the colleges to let her know about my situation, and before I had mentioned how long my doctor said I would be unable to work, she mused out loud, “I suppose we’ll need to replace you if you’ll be gone more than a couple of weeks.” I immediately assured her I’d be back in two weeks. I needed that job and couldn’t take a chance that they’d replace me for that semester and beyond. My first day back at work, my then-husband accompanied me, holding me up when I couldn’t stand on my own, helping me keep track of time and conversations, which was still challenging for me, and carrying my teaching materials.

Story #2: A few years ago, a colleague on my campus proudly told me that she hadn’t taken a single day of leave when she had cancer or when her own other was dying in hospice. When she told me this, she was chair of her department and expressed frustration that the faculty in her department took leave for every cold and minor illness.

Story #3: When my husband had his stroke in June 2020, I became his caregiver. As a full professor, I have health insurance, access to FMLA job protection, and enough sick and annual leave saved up that I can comfortably take time off from work to care for him without my pay being reduced. Avoiding a pay reduction is important because since his stroke, he’s been unable to work and while disability might be approved for him sometime soon, it hasn’t been yet (we applied in September!), and even if/when it is approved, it will only make up a portion of his lost salary. Since August, I have taken about 6-10 hours/week off from work, with complete support and understanding from my supervisors (as a faculty member with administrative duties outside my department, I have two supervisors: a department chair supervises me in my faculty role and an AVP supervises me in my administrative role). The only sticky point came when my department chair expressed concern that there was no department policy allowing me to reduce my service commitments in the department without it being potentially held against me at my next review. Because I’m already a full professor and have overdone service historically, I’m comfortable taking my chances on having a semester with a lighter service load.

These three stories show how deeply embedded ableism is in policies and practices around faculty leave. When I had a stroke as an adjunct instructor, financial insecurity made me feel the need to place my chair’s concern about having to find another instructor to teach my classes ahead of my own doctors’ advice for my recovery. Going back to work two weeks after my own stroke was dangerous and stressful, but it felt less dangerous and stressful than potentially losing my job. It’s impossible to say what impact going back to work so quickly had on my recovery; I do know that once the idea was put in my head that I would be replaced if I missed too many classes, I never cancelled a class, regardless of how ill or contagious I was.

I’m sure that when my chair mused out loud about having to replace me, she was thinking about students needing to be taught. However, the assumption that an adjunct instructor will not get sick or need time off relies on the idea that being sick or needing time off is not normal. In fact, in this particular situation, it was viewed as cause for being dismissed.

I have a colleague in a non-tenure track full-time teaching position who is a caregiver for a loved one; she does not have the same access to paid leave that I have. She and I are both full-time faculty and we are both caregivers; I can take 6-10 hours/week of leave to care for my husband without taking a pay decrease but she cannot. Why should we have different access to leave when we essentially do the same job? Why does my institution view it as more normal for me to need time off than for her?

Now that I do have access to leave, I’m able to make decisions about taking sick days for myself or to care for my husband without the added stress of worrying about how our finances will be impacted. Without leave, I would quite possibly become resentful about the high level of care my husband needs, or I would be regularly stretched too thin to be a good caregiver or a good professor. As it is, even with leave, I have had moments of burnout. Even with leave, I am judicious about taking it, and I typically bring work with me to my husband’s appointments so I can respond to student papers or plan a class in the few minutes between arriving at an appointment and being called in to see the doctor. I’m still aware that even with leave, there’s a perception at my institution that “good” employees don’t take leave.

This is exactly the attitude that was expressed by my colleague when she bragged that she hadn’t taken leave during her own or her mother’s health crises. She shared that story to highlight her devotion to her job and her professionalism, which she contrasted with the “less professional” attitudes of the faculty in her department who did take days off when they were ill. She did not express compassion for people who got ill, but rather, found fault with them. This is a class ableist thought: people who do not have ideal health are not as worthy as people who do or people who can pass as if they do. My colleague, remember, did not have ideal health and neither did her mother, but she worked hard to pass as if she and her mother did.

In an ableist model, getting ill or taking leave are framed as shameful, unprofessional, indicative of a lack of commitment to a job.

Even in the third story, which is a much happier story than the other two, there is the sticky point about whether a reduced service load while on leave can be negotiated. I am able to take leave, but the expectations for my service are not changed by me working less. In other words, I am still expected to do 100% of my service work, but in less time. Because of the privilege afforded me by being a full professor, I am not particularly worried about repercussions in my next review, but someone without tenure or someone hoping for a promotion would rightly worry.

In this situation, the ableist assumption seems to be something along the lines of, “We’re already giving you time off, now don’t put an unfair burden on your able-bodied colleagues by slacking on service.”

How do we change the culture around faculty leave? Here are my ideas:

  1. Fight for all employees to have access to paid leave. Yes, even adjunct instructors. Start from the assumption that people will get sick rather than from the assumption that they won’t.
  2. If you have access to leave, take it when you need it. The more normalized it becomes for people to take leave, the more normalized it becomes for people to take leave.
  3. When colleagues take leave, be supportive. Don’t question whether they “really” need the leave; assume that they do.
  4. Work to change retention, promotion, tenure, and other review policies to account for employees taking leave. Don’t treat the situation in which a colleague takes leave as an anomaly; plan for it.

A Re-Reboot (or Why I’m Still Pissed Off about the Same Old Things)

I rebooted this blog on April 22, 2020 with the intention of posting every week on resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies in academia and sometimes beyond. I did not intend my June 1, 2020 entry to be my last, but 2020 threw me a little curve and changed my priorities when my amazing husband, Tom, had a massive stroke on June 7.

The stroke was on the right side of his brain. He was left paralyzed on the left side and with a neurological condition called Left Neglect, which means that his brain doesn’t process things that happen on his left, so he doesn’t see things to his left, hear sounds that originate on his left, etc.

It’s been nearly nine months and Tom has worked hard every single day to recover. He spent six weeks in ICU, the hospital, and then rehab learning to swallow, sit up, and take his first few tentative steps. He returned home in late July and has continued to put intense effort into physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech/cognitive therapy. He’s regaining some mobility and strength in his left leg, so he is now able to walk short distances with a walker or cane, mostly in the house. His PT timed him at 1 minute and 53 seconds to get up from a chair, walk 20 feet with a walker, and sit back down in the chair, so it’s not a practical mode of transportation at this time, but it does seem reasonable to think he’ll be able to walk on his own around the house, at least, at some point in the future.

Cognitive issues Tom is struggling with include memory problems, trouble understanding numbers, including time, and complications caused by Left Neglect.

I am on partial leave from work to allow for my caregiving responsibilities now. Tom is unable at this time to dress or bathe himself. I manage his doctor/therapy appointments (at least six appointments every week), insurance issues, and his medications (he’s currently on 16). I am his chief cheerleader, dietician, homework coach (speech therapy involves a ton of homework), and general wrangler.

This experience has given me the opportunity to draw on some of the advice I’ve offered on this blog—saying no, primarily. It’s also deepened my commitments to resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies. I’ve been lucky to have access to FMLA leave at my job to support my reduced work, which I’m both grateful for and pissed off about because my non-full time colleagues don’t have access to the same thing. My awareness of ableism is heightened by the frequent and maddening barriers my husband faces in navigating the world from a wheelchair. Despite all the proclamations of anti-racism in academia in the past year (including at my own university, which declared itself “an anti-racist university” without actually doing anything anti-racist) little has actually changed. These experiences and others since my husband’s stroke have continued to piss me off about the same things I was pissed off about before his stroke.

I’m hereby rebooting this blog again—does that make it a re-reboot?

I’ll continue with the same plan I had when I rebooted last year: to post once a week on issues related to resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies, mostly in academia but sometimes beyond.

Privilege and Saying No

I want to continue my series on saying no in academia by addressing the role that privilege plays in saying no and supporting others who say no.

I have a ton of privilege in academia:

  • I’m white, which means I am never asked, by virtue of my skin color, to represent an entire race of people. I look like the prototypical female academic.
  • I’m a native White English speaker, which means the English I grew up speaking and writing is the English of academia. How lucky for me!
  • I’m tenured, which means my job is safe even if I am perceived as difficult or not a team player.
  • I’m a Full Professor, which means I never have to go through the promotion process again at my institution, so as with being tenured, there are very few material consequences for me if I am perceived as difficult.

All of this means that I don’t have much to lose when I say no to a service request. The decisions I make about how much time and energy to put toward service requests are relatively low stakes for me, and I can make those decisions largely without worrying about how senior colleagues, the chair, the dean, and the provost will judge me. If they judge me negatively because of the decisions I make, I may have to deal with the emotional labor of navigating workplace conflict, and I don’t want to minimize that because it is exhausting, but there is very unlikely to be any significant material impact on my career.

Before I had tenure, I felt pressured to take on every service “opportunity” that was offered to me. A number of factors contributed to that pressure:

  • I was typically invited to participate in service by someone who would ultimately have a say in my tenure bid: a senior colleague, the chair, the dean, or the provost. I was afraid that if I said no, they would vote against me when I went up for tenure.
  • Service was generally presented by these people as a “great opportunity” for me, and I had yet to understand what a load of bullshit that usually is. I trusted that these people had my best career interests in mind. Yes, I was naïve enough to believe that others genuinely wanted me to succeed and would only bring me opportunities they truly thought would help my tenure bid. Just writing that sentence feels absurd, but it is what I thought was true.
  • Because the standard for service work in place when I went up for tenure was very vague, I always felt it was possible for someone to look at my service record and find it lacking. What exactly is “significant service” or “leadership”? If what counts as enough isn’t defined clearly, someone who doesn’t like you can always interpret your record as lacking.

Once I had tenure, I immediately felt the weight of these factors lift. I knew I would still have to go up for promotion and be judged, but I figured that if the service I had done pre-tenure was deemed “enough,” then I could just maintain my current service load and not go beyond it. I’ve talked to many others who had the same experience, and I see regularly that once faculty get tenure, their service work becomes much more focused on what they are actually invested in.

That lifting of pressure to say yes that I felt when I got tenure will NEVER be felt by faculty who aren’t in tenure lines. This means adjunct faculty and folks in non-tenure lines will ALWAYS feel those very real pressures to say yes. For folks whose jobs are up for renewal every semester or every year or every few years, the worry that being perceived as uncooperative or not a team-player could cost them their livelihood NEVER goes away.

I am still asked to do more service than I suspect my male colleagues are—for more on this, see my post, “On Having to Say No Over and Over”—but because of my privilege, I am able to say no without ever worrying that my job is in jeopardy. This is why I feel strongly that those of us with privilege must actively create conditions that protect our colleagues with less privilege from being exploited through service requests.

Unfortunately, I witness many senior faculty taking the attitude that because they were terribly exploited as junior faculty or adjuncts, everyone should have to go through that. I actually was in a meeting one time, before I had tenure, in which a senior colleague said, “Adjunct faculty are used to getting the shaft. Why should we change that?,” as if “giving a colleague the shaft” is a normal, reasonable thing to do in a professional setting. Others in the room laughed at the comment, and when I told the chair about it, they, too, laughed.

I have another colleague who calls this attitude part of the “academic cycle of abuse.” We replicate for others below us the conditions we experienced ourselves. If we had to do ridiculous amounts of service with little or no reward, then damn it, others should, too. It becomes normalized.

I believe those of us with privilege must break this cycle of abuse. I talked in my last post about supporting folks when they say no, but to really break the cycle of abuse, we need to understand that faculty in precarious positions may not ever say no because of the pressures I mentioned above. To break the cycle of abuse then we need to go beyond supporting folks who say no by actually creating fewer “opportunities” for service. There is so much busy work in academia—it doesn’t really all need to get done, and of the work that does need to get done, it doesn’t all need to get done now. With the U.S. facing both a pandemic and a rebellion, perhaps Fall 2020 is the perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and suspend all service that doesn’t actually have to be done during the fall. At my institution, tenure clocks are being paused and sabbaticals are being delayed—it seems perfectly reasonable to me that non-essential service could also be suspended. That would give us an opportunity to think more deliberately about what actually needs to be done and by whom.

We need to think carefully about how our actions shape academic workplaces for others. Exploiting junior faculty will not lessen any exploitation we experienced. Do we want to work in an abusive environment? If not, then if our privilege allows it, we must not engage in abusive practices, be accountable when we do engage in abusive practices, and actively work to end abusive practices for all of our colleagues.

What place does grading rigor have during COVID-19?

My own grading practices have shifted quite a bit over the past few years toward what seems to be now called “compassionate grading,” which aims to eliminate less important assignments, allow students flexible deadlines, and provide more support for students to meet learning outcomes. I’ve seen “compassionate grading” recommended as a response to the sudden shift to online learning, but I wonder why anyone would practice non-compassionate grading, regardless of whether we are experiencing a pandemic. How is a lack of compassion equal to rigor? Is lack of compassion a teaching strategy?

When my classes suddenly became online courses in March, I emailed all my students and told them that if they were already passing the class, even if they didn’t turn in anything else for the whole semester, they would pass the class. I wondered how many students would simply stop submitting work, especially as many of them now had children at home with then 24/7, loved ones diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19, drastically reduced or increased work hours, and other intense stressors.

I also told them that my standards for what constituted a better-than-passing grade had just become more flexible.

With one week left in the semester, I can report an astonishing statistic: less than 5% of my students stopped turning in work, and the few who did all contacted me on their own accord to apologize and promise that work would be turned in before the end of the semester. That means more than 95% of my students, when told they would pass a class even if they turned in nothing more, continued to turn in work.

I’m halfway through reading their final projects, and damn, they’re good. As good as final projects from any other semester. This means that even with me announcing that it would be easier to get a B or an A, my students have not turned in work that is of lower quality than what I typically see. This seems like compelling evidence for more compassionate grading overall.

I think a lot of talk about grading rigor is code for enforcing white ableist standards of what academic success looks like, and it often goes way beyond evaluating the quality of work turned in. If you’re really looking at the quality of work turned in, why take off a point for every “error” (lots of research indicates that what we recognize as an error is often connected to our perception of whether the writer is white or not)? Why factor in whether the assignment was turned in on your timeline? Why penalize students who don’t know what office hours are for? Why dictate the genre an assignment must be written in? Why give extra credit for going to the writing center?

Grading is my least favorite aspect of teaching. I can read and respond to student work all day long, but having to assign a grade to it seems so counter to everything my pedagogy is based on. I believe all grading is flawed in some way. A traditional grading system evaluates how much access to resources (time, energy, etc.) a student has as much as it measures how much a student has learned. Labor-based grade contracts and portfolios, which I have embraced, are better, but not perfect. There’s still no way that I’ve found to really control for differences in resource distribution.

But at the end of the teaching day, evaluating how much my students learned isn’t the most important part of my job. On some level, I have to blindly trust that they learned the important stuff, and if the semester ends with us on good terms, then even if they didn’t learn it, they’ll know they can reach out to me in the future, perhaps when they are in a better place to do that learning. (Yes, that has happened.) This is always true, but particularly now.

“storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” as citizen, tenured faculty, & writing center director

I watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, “It’s OK to Feel Overwhelmed. Here’s What to Do Next” this past weekend and found many useful reframings of the current situation and inspiring thoughts and advice. At the same time, I was troubled by how white it was, by virtue of it being the thoughts of a wealthy white woman, sitting in her beautiful home without having to worry about paying rent or entertaining/homeschooling children. Gilbert explicitly acknowledges her privilege, pointing out that she’s in a lucky position. I am not taking issue with her at all, or even with any of her advice; I’m just acknowledging that yeah, she is a privileged white woman giving advice that resonated with me, in part because, I, too, am a privileged white woman, and that I’m very uncomfortable with that.

And I think that acknowledging my privilege must also mean living with that discomfort, taking it on actively, inviting it to live in the foreground of my thinking rather than allowing it to recede into the background. This is different from feeling bad about it. Feeling bad about it doesn’t help anyone. Inviting it in lets me use it to guide my decision-making in a deliberate way. Here’s what that looked like today.

I begin each morning by reading that day’s entry in the Dalai Lama’s The Path to Tranquility: Daily Wisdom. The entry for today is

All the problems that every individual meets with in everyday life—famine, unemployment, delinquency, insecurity, psychological deviancy, various epidemics, drugs, madness, despair, terrorism—all that is bound up with the widening gap between people, which, needless to say, can also be found inside the rich countries.

Our ancient experience confirms it at every instant: everything is linked together, everything is inseparable. Consequently the gap has to be reduced.

With Gilbert’s talk on my mind, this entry reminded me of an Indian saying she highlights: “I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor.” Gilbert explains

Western, capitalistic society has taught and trained us to hoard long before this, long before this happened and people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. Advertising and the whole capitalist model has taught us scarcity, it’s taught us that you have to be surrounded by abundance in order to safe. The disconnect between those who have and those who have not has never been bigger, and never in my lifetime, and probably in any of our lifetimes, has there been an invitation, again, to release the stranglehold on your hoarding. This is not the time for hoarding. This is the time to store your grain in the belly of your neighbor, in a way that is emotionally sober and accurate to what you can give, and to look at that in a really honest way, to not put your own family in danger, to not put yourself in crisis, but to be able to say, “What can I offer in the immediacy?” And then, in the longer term, a conversation about redistribution of resources, and why do so few have so much and why do so many have so little?

As a financially secure citizen, “storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” at this moment means making a donation to MSU Denver’s Student Emergency Fund, which is available to undocumented students, something very important to me given that Betsy DeVos has specified that undocumented students cannot get federal emergency aid.

As a tenured full professor with white privilege, it means advocating for colleagues in contingent positions. Today specifically it meant emailing one adjunct instructor to ask how they are doing and how I can support them. In the longer term it means continuing to speak out against inequitable labor conditions and exploring funding a professional development program for first year writing instructors on my campus.

As a writing center director, it means forming collaborations with other offices on campus to pool funding rather than compete for funding. Gilbert mentions “unleash[ing] the white-knuckled grip that I have on what’s mine and make sure that I’m going into the world with an open hand.” The next fiscal year is predicted to be quite grim, and I suspect I will want to cling to whatever bit of funding the writing center gets. I want to resist that urge and look for ways to share our funding with other campus offices.