Reading, Not Writing

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

Back in January, we in the Scholars’ Lab looked back fondly on all the public writing we had done together in 2019 and boldly looked ahead to all that we would do in 2020. We had big plans for putting more thoughts out in the world on a variety of topics. Then, of course, 2020 happened. In addition to the ongoing public health emergency, I have also been simmering with bottled rage about the full spectrum of political struggles related to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, the ongoing climate emergency, and the Presidential election. Writing seems far less important now, with everything going on. All of this is to say that I, for one, have not been getting much blogging done. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt around this at first, as one typically does in academia when you have publicly declared yourself to be doing something that you cannot follow through on. But I have been trying to take the advice of Connor Kenaston, a former Praxis student, who advised his cohort at the beginnings of the pandemic to “be gentle with yourself.”

My version of being gentle has involved accepting that now is not the time to worry about putting new ideas into the world. When I had my comprehensive exams during my PhD, my advisor described graduate school to that point as a period of taking information in, as opposed to the new phase I was entering that would redirect that effort outwards as I looked towards the dissertation. Though of course it could be more nuanced, I think there is some truth to that binary: never before or since have I ever read as voraciously as I did during my graduate coursework and while studying for my exams. In the present moment I’ve found myself going backwards in a good way. While I have not been in a mental space conducive to writing, I have been trying to make more time for quiet reflection as I can. I have struggled in the last nine months to understand everything that is going on, in part because it defies easy explanation. I have been turning to others wiser than I am for guidance about how to respond to the ongoing emergencies in my own work, particularly as a means of trying to learn more about the struggles of students and colleagues whose experiences are different than mine. I’ve been spending more time reading, and I wanted to share a few things I have found especially useful.

On Financial Aid

I’ve written before that your perspective on what it currently is like to be a student is, fundamentally, going to be different from reality unless you are currently a student. And this gulf will deepen the further you age away from your own time as an enrolled student. I have my own experiences with student debt, but I wanted to read more about how students currently experience the financial aid process and its associated burdens. To that end, I read a significant chunk of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. The book is exceptional in a number of ways, both for providing clear data that is helpful for informing conversations about student aid and debt as well as for the specific interviews that it offers drawn from students currently living through the process. Most helpful for me was the material that describes exactly how student aid (and, by association, debt) is calculated by financial aid offices. It is wildly more complicated than I ever could have imagined, and reading Goldrick-Rab’s work has helped give me a better understanding of the intersectional context for the student debt crisis and how it extends into graduate education.

On Food Scarcity

The pandemic has, in many ways, drawn attention to system inequalities already in place across the globe. The closure of schools has exacerbated food scarcity among those K-12 students who rely on school lunches. Goldrick-Rab’s work with the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice does an excellent job of showing just how much on food scarcity continues to be an issue for higher education. A useful piece that summarizes some of the issues is “It’s hard to study if you’re hungry.” A more pointed line that has been kicking around in my head since reading that piece is “it’s impossible to learn when you’re starving.”

On Loving Your Job

Katina Rogers recently published Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, a book I found incredibly useful on a broad range of topics related to graduate pedagogy and advising. I found her description of love as it pertains to one’s work especially useful: “the notion that one work’s ‘for love’ reflects a position of privilege that minimizes the struggle many academics face to support themselves, and renders invisible the barriers that exacerbate the challenges for women, people of color, people with disabilities, and others who are not well supported by the structures of academe” (22). The same description, of course, could work for a number of different careers, but that should not diminish the critique’s power as it pertains to higher education.

On Precarious Labor

I’ve been finding it helpful to read about labor advocacy, both in digital humanities and otherwise, as a way of understanding how the pandemic has exacerbated the economic and power disparities that have always existed in the university structure. Precarious Labor in the Digital Humanities by Christina Boyles, Anne Cong-Huyen, Carrie Johnston, Jim McGrath, and Amanda Phillips is an excellent way in for those of us working digital humanities. In addition, the coverage of the University of Michigan graduate students and RAs strike over their administration’s response to COVID-19 has been instructive for the kind of solidarity and activism that our current moment calls for.

On Student Surveillance

It feels like we all live on Zoom now, and I am very grateful to those who have drawn attention to the insidious effects of video technology used for pedagogy on student privacy. Asking students to turn their video on during a call, for example, can involve inviting a student’s instructor and peers into their private economic and social circumstances in ways that can be harmful. Shea Swauger, writing on the related issue of algorithmic test proctoring, argues that “Cheating is not a technological problem, but a social and pedagogical problem. Technology is often blamed for creating the conditions in which cheating proliferates and is then offered as the solution to the problem it created; both claims are false.” I especially appreciated the ways in which Swauger ties technological solutions to online cheating as ultimately encoding a eugenic gaze into the classroom. Zoom often feels like something I just switch on as a part of starting my working day, but pieces like this have been helpful for thinking through the pedagogical and ethical implications of it and related platforms.

There’s no clear sign that we’re getting back to normal anytime soon, and I’m grateful to these authors for the guidance they offer for navigating our current circumstances. They’ve made me a better teacher and colleague.