This Blog Is Trauma On Display

Eric - Red Scream

This is the most significant public essay that I have ever written. And, it is the most difficult for me write. I imagine by the essay’s end, some readers will feel a greater sense of sympathy for me – and, Goddess help you if you can empathize. Others may find confirmation in their assessment that I am crazy, never to return again to this site. Still others may be unmoved because what I share here is unsurprising based on my earlier writing. Let’s get on with it then.

I was traumatized by my graduate training. My six years in grad school – the journey to a PhD and the tenure-track position that I currently hold – also landed me in therapy two years after graduation. I began seeing a therapist over the summer because I have not been fully enjoying the job for which I fought so hard. For two years, I have lived in fear that I will be fired or denied tenure because of my politics, my activism, my identities, my research, my teaching – all of the very qualities that got me the job in the first place. I have experienced anxiety about how I dress, how I interact with students and colleagues, what I write on this blog, and what advocacy I pursue on and off campus. I haven’t enjoyed my job, and have rarely felt fully present at work; admittedly, I feel a creeping suspicion that I would quit before tenure if I were to continue this way.

I (re)created Conditionally Accepted right after I graduated from Indiana University in 2013. I was fed up with challenges that I had experienced, finding out later how common these barriers were. I had been through things I now know others had, as well, but without the benefit of access to others’ stories and wisdom. There is no reason why any grad student should feel as though they are alone in instances of patterned inequalities and problems in the academy.

On this blog, I have been quite vocal about these challenges. At one point, I even reflected on experiencing “grad school garbage,” alluding to trauma and PTSD. In private journaling, I noticed that I have casually used the term trauma. And, I mentioned the term in sessions with my therapist. But, it took hearing him say it for me to realize how fitting the term is for my experiences and their lasting impact.

“Eric, you experienced a trauma,” my therapist said. I rejected his preliminary diagnosis. I responded that trauma is rape, combat, or having your house burn down. Who gets traumatized in pursuit of an academic degree? Apparently, I did. Eventually, I accepted his assessment. I felt a sense of relief to have a label for my awful experiences, for an outsider to validate just how bad it was. But, it also felt (and still feels) embarrassing. Some peers loved grad school. I was traumatized by it. What’s different about me? What’s wrong with me? Why me? Was it really that bad?

In a later session, my therapist asked about the content of Conditionally Accepted, at least my blog posts. I already knew where the conversation was headed. This blog is trauma on display. Each post that I wrote, including some that never got published on the blog, risked becoming a rant about grad school. I have been stuck in the hurt for two years. My therapist suggested a trauma narrative – the telling of my traumatic experience, which I would work through with his help. This is much more productive than telling and retelling horror stories to anyone who will listen. And, it was. I filled a 70-page spiral notebook with the handwritten telling of every horrific experience, instance of discrimination, and microaggression. When I flipped through the 70 pages, I thought, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?”

What was so traumatic about my graduate training? I identified four factors that were beyond my control: repeated microaggressions; the devaluing of research on my communities (Black and queer people) as legitimate areas of study; the efforts to “beat the activist out” of me; and, the intense pressure to pursue a career that was not right for me. These factors reflect the structure and culture of graduate training. PhD or not, job or not, any time in that program would inevitably traumatize me. There is no use feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I could have done differently.

How do Black queer activists and other marginalized and radical students avoid such trauma? Maybe I will have an answer upon successfully recovering from my own trauma. I suspect having a community, supportive family and friends, and a strong sense of my values helped to prevent worse trauma. But, these clearly were not enough to prevent the trauma in the first place.

Ultimately, academia would have to change drastically. Diversity as a value would have to mean active recruitment and retention of significant numbers of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, working class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and religious and nonreligious minorities. That, and the valuing of research on and by these populations. And, doing away with the mythology of objectivity and its privileging of scholarship on and by white heterosexual middle-class cisgender men without disabilities. Activism, which has a long history in academia, can no longer be seen as antithetical to academic pursuits. In the 21st century, grad programs must prepare students for the realities of the profession and world. Too few PhDs land tenure-track jobs, and even fewer in reputable research I universities. We should be training the next generation of intellectuals for all possible academic and non-academic jobs, and to be able to respond to the problems of their day.

I am certain that I may continue to process the trauma out loud. But, as my therapist encouraged me, I no longer want to dwell on it. Rather, I want to continue to use this blog as a space to offer resources for current and future scholars of marginalized backgrounds. Maybe, just maybe, I will help one person avoid the traumatic experiences that I endured. At least let me dream of an academia that is safe, equitable, diverse, accessible, and active in the promotion of social justice.

25 thoughts on “This Blog Is Trauma On Display

  1. This is the bravest post I’ve ever read. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow — that’s a huge honor. Thank you for that.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your brave post. As always, I am inspired by what you have written. There is healing and power in claiming and telling our authentic stories. I am praying and walking forth with blind faith that I will complete my dissertation within 14 Months. So many challenges come with marginalized identities…some just do not get it. You confirm my decision to work outside the traditiinal academic system to conduct strengths-based research that will fill the many gaps about mental health, wellness and self care for Black women. I do not think there are many traditional programs that would accept or tolerate my level of activism, my refusal to continue to take care of White privileged colleagues, and my view of community members sharing equally in power and resources. I am pursuing my doctorate “late”, -but right on time, because I have no time or interest in playing games to get it.

      Keep fighting, keep sharing, keep writing. You have support in this community you have created. Peace.

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  2. All. Of. This. Thank you thank you thank you.

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  3. Thank you. I entered with a trauma history (although well treated and ready) but found the whole experience devastating. In my first year of full-time teaching (not tenure track), I find myself needing to rebuild my self-esteem to where I was before I entered my program. Thanks for continuing this outlet and I am happy to have contributed to it. (Oh, and naming the four factors is really helpful — I’ll bring them to therapy next week!)

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    • I’m glad to hear your trauma has been treated. That gives me hope for recovery. I can definitely relate to the sense of recovering my self-esteem, my sense of self-worth, even my voice. I don’t think we fully realize how much we sacrificed in pursuit of a PhD until it’s too late. But, you are giving me hope!

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  4. Dr. Grollman – An Excellent summary, and call to action. Amazing that you could keep it so short! I think your recommendations are completely on-point, and serve as a wonderful reminder of why, I imagine, many of us are here. Just this last week I found myself even more powerfully FEELING the effects of social class on my career prospects – it has recently been terrifying. Perhaps it will become another blog post! But in the mean time, the validation is wonderful and a relief. I am so saddened that this trauma has happened, and likely will to others. But hopefully we can all pull something better from this and similar experiences. So much goodness in this article!

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    • Grace, I am so glad you’ve contributed to the blog. I do look forward to your next post. You are speaking so much truth about classism and other challenges that working-class scholars face in academia. It needs to be said so people won’t feel alone, or like it is somehow their own fault or failing. Finding community, or building it if it doesn’t exist, will be crucial to surviving and thriving in the academy.

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  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was alone.

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  6. Wow wow wow! Thank you for sharing! I’m still in grad school and trying to be myself but it is hard. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Definitely wish I had folks like you at my university.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Heather, that means a lot to me. Yes, it is hard. I don’t know that it would be easy in any line of work, but I suppose we (at least some of us) are surprised how hard it is in academia. It’s great that you realize this now. Perhaps if I had figured it out and learned effective survival strategies, I’d save myself some time and money that is now going into therapy. I definitely encourage you to find spaces in academia where you can be yourself — summer programs, conferences, friends, etc. You deserve it.

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  7. thank you!!! so much thank you! the enduring effects of these traumas are re-traumatizing in themselves. contributing to the difficulties in finding steady, commensurate employment for many PhDs.

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  8. You made it through! I am 5-years in and “trying” to write the dissertation. The experience has given me an ulcer and I’ve been medicating my depression after years of counseling. I want the experience to end, but it is an ongoing and constant source of frustration. Best of luck to all of us enduring our traumas. Seeking help and letting people know are really the most cathartic ways to deal with it.

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    • Thanks for sharing that, Louise. Pushing through is one way — but at what cost? I tried my hand at some mental health advocacy in my department and on campus and found most faculty didn’t feel grad students’ health was their concern. So, the cultures and structures don’t change, and some students continue to end up in therapy (with or without a degree). We need major change in the way we train our grad students.

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  9. Wow, what an amazingly brave post. I’m four years into grad school, and I think I’m having an easier time of it than you did, but there is so much going on around me that is so wrong, so harmful to me and to my friends, so against my values, and it takes a toll. For me, I go through periods when I want to write a trauma notebook about all of the sexist and heterosexist aggressions (micro and macro) I’ve experienced and witnessed. These seem to come out most when I am stressed for other reasons and have no time, and when I do have time, I want to sleep or focus on things other than school. Maybe this time, I’ll actually write it out.

    Thank you for your bravery and your hard work.

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    • Thanks for sharing that. I probably would have said the same to myself when I was in year 4 of grad school. I didn’t recognize the trauma until I started seeing a therapist 2 years after I graduated. That’s not to say you’re being traumatized, or will be, or that everyone who goes through grad school is. My point, though, is to find a way to process all of the “wrong” you see and experience so it doesn’t continue to take a toll; journal, vent with friends, challenge it (if you can/feel safe to), see a therapist, find some other outlet or release. From my experience, it seems grad programs don’t feel your well-being is your concern, so it’s wise prioritize self-care for yourself since no one else will.

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  10. Wow. Thank you for sharing.

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  12. Wow. Thank you so much for writing this. I am so glad that you are in a place where you can process the trauma and name it for what it is. I’m a white, radical, bisexual, first generation college graduate from poverty-based intergenerational trauma, and I now have a Ph.D. and tenure, and I can tell you that this stuff is totally relevant to my ongoing experiences in the college where I work and where I am trying to dismantle institutional racism/classism in our approaches to students. I have absolutely experienced trauma in the course of doing this work, and I know I can absolutely benefit from your advice. Thank you. I wish you continued healing and growing strength.

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  15. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD by my therapist, who I finally started seeing 8 years after I left grad school. I would love academia to change and not be so awful to the people it is training. How many amazing bright people who could change the world do we push out?

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