Beyond “QuitLit”

I quit my job text on cardboard

I spent weeks working myself into a fine lather over the how, when, and why of explaining my current relationship with academia (which I eventually did in my most recent post). Grad school is a fantastic incubator for self-consciousness, and—though I make a genuine (and, I would argue, largely successful) effort to stay optimistic and confident in all things—I couldn’t help but worry about how my colleagues and peers might respond to my public declaration that I’m not 100% sure what I want to be when I grow up.

While some of that anxiety was inevitable, it also proved to be a fantastic waste of my time.

Since returning to school (and SMDS), I’ve been buoyed by support from peers and mentors around the country. It turns out I’m not alone. There are a lot of graduate students who aren’t really sure the career path they are following is the best choice for them. Indeed, I’ve heard from highly successful tenured professors that they still don’t know if they made the right choices, decades later. Even those who are convinced they found their place in the world are sympathetic to my situation, because they’ve seen it so many times before. I’ve also discovered that some of the grad students I most admire (and least expected) are warming to the alt-ac path, if for no other reason because the exigencies of the job market dictate they must.

I’m sharing this miniature update because—while I consider myself a pretty astute observer of micro and macro trends in higher education—I didn’t anticipate the tide of empathy in which I’m currently bathed. At best, I assumed I’d face a lot of cajoling; at worst, I figured I’d be written off as too weak to survive in academia. I came to these expectations honestly, in no small part thanks to a number of articles on the topic (so-called “QuitLit”) that have been circulating in the recent past. I was especially struck by Elizabeth Keenan’s Vitae post on “Having the Talk.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but stay with me here. The fact that so many people are taking to the internet to enumerate the reasons why they left academia, and to empower others as they do the same, made me feel like the thoughts I’m currently indulging required justification. It felt like I was committing some kind of radical thought crime, just by acknowledging that—at twenty freakin’ eight—I’m not 100% wedded to my current career path.  That’s insane.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate the efforts of my fellow bloggers; I think “QuitLit” deserves a big, prominent place in discussions of higher education. That said, what I needed to hear over the past few weeks, more than anything else, was what I heard when I went back to school:

“Oh. Yeah, me too.”

“It makes a lot of sense for you to be having these thoughts given where you are in your career.”

“Leaving academia seems far less upsetting now than it did a couple years ago.”

And my personal favorite, from a friend who beat the odds and actually got the tenure-track job: “[I]t seems pretty self-apparent that a true scholar can find fulfillment and do the world some good in any number of professions.”

So there you have it folks. If you are considering alt-ac career options, or leaving grad school, or are SURE you want to try for tenure but want to feel like it’s okay to discuss other options, shoot me an email, leave a comment on this post, or join the SMDS Facebook group. I will tell you what you need to hear… with a comforting lack of fanfare.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

I’m Back… And I’m Starting Over!

New life chapter

Just three short months after starting “The Six Million Dollar Scholar,” I did that thing that pro bloggers tell you to never, ever, ever do: I disappeared. It’s been over three months since my last post, which is even more embarrassing because that means my blog’s spent more time inactive than it’s spent active. WOOPS.

Well, I’m back now.

So where did I go? I crawled into my own head. A small piece of me actually died in there. Some call that piece “denial,” others “fear,” but I’m going to go ahead and call it what it is: bullshit. My bullshit died. I killed it.

I stopped blogging because I decided “writing for fun” was a waste of time, that the aforementioned time needed to go to my dissertation. I was struggling with my academic work—pretty much for the first time ever—so it didn’t make sense to blog. Instead, I devoted myself to hitting my head against the wall, harder, and harder, and harder. Eventually the dissertation would shake loose, right? Grad school is suffering, so finding myself chronically unsatisfied with my work was just a sign that I was on the right track, right? RIGHT?!?

Wrong. I had been going nowhere, and I’d been going there at the speed of light. By the time my twenty eighth birthday rolled around in December, I was demoralized, depressed… I was done.

A fairly accurate rendering of where I was around this time last month.

I went home over the winter break with no books, no journal articles, no writing, nothing. I resolved that I would use my time off to deal with the frightening reality that I might not be cut out for the career I’ve spent years pursuing. To call that process uncomfortable would be an understatement. Academia is, and always has been, my security blanket. It’s my constant, my rock, my significant other. It doesn’t just structure my identity, it structures my assumptions about all the big-ticket concepts in life: success, love, work, intelligence, and freedom, to name a few. Nevertheless, I rolled up my sleeves, and took a good long look at my situation.

What did this several-week-long face-to-face with the truth yield? A series of realizations:

  • I am NOT happy with life as I’m currently living it.
  • I have all the tools I need to succeed, both within and without academia, but I’ve been too disconnected from myself to use those tools effectively.
  • There is nothing more comfortable than that which reliably sucks, and there is nothing more frightening than attaining what you want.
  • By convincing myself that my life path is pre-determined—and structured by others (academia, my professors, reviewers, search committees, etc.)—I’ve made graduate school into a trap, instead of a space to freely cultivate my ideas.
  • My priorities in life have been changing fairly radically over the past few years, but I failed to accommodate, or even accept, those changes.
  • In walking away from blogging (and non-academic writing in general) I have been denying myself that which brings me closer to the truth. Of course I couldn’t post… being authentic would mean admitting I didn’t have all, most, or any of the answers.

I would say I had a fairly productive Winter Break, wouldn’t you? For all the epiphanies I managed to cram into a few short weeks, the process of arriving at all of these conclusions was incredibly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I couldn’t—at the time—do a damned thing about them. I just had to sit with all this new information, and try not to throw up.

Now I’m back at school, and it’s time to take care of business. What does that actually mean?

This is probably the place where you expect me to tell you that I’m dropping out of school. I’m not. But I might… one day. I honestly don’t know, and that’s actually really important to me.

The single most radical thing I can do, and my single greatest challenge, both personally and professionally, is to accept (and dwell in) uncertainty. So that’s what I’m going to do.

These days, when I wake up, I have three main goals: I will use the day to (1) do meaningful academic work, (2) write something meaningful, whatever that looks like to me that day, and (3) to do something concrete to build up my “alt-ac” options. My days will also include home-cooked meals, exercise, non-academic reading, and at least eight hours of sleep. In essence, I’m going to force myself to live intentionally, but without a concrete end in mind. I’m trusting that this will bring me to a place where I’m able to truly understand what I want out of life, and how—or if—a Ph.D. figures into that calculus.

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but part of me worried that doing so would somehow invalidate the whole blog. After all, I called my blog “The Six Million Dollar Scholar.” Can I still claim that title, now that pretty much everything about my life and career is up in the air?

Yes. Yes I can. Looking critically at (and beyond) my Ph.D. is probably the most intelligent thing I’ve done since starting SMDS. In fact, it’s an exercise more academics would do well to adopt. It’s also helped remind me that I need not be a grad student, a professor, or an anything in particular, to be a scholar. Learning is my jam. I’ll be a scholar no matter where this journey takes me, because that’s just who I am.

So there you have it. I’m back, and on the road to being better than ever. 2015 should be a very interesting year.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education Owes Readers an Apology

“It’s like Christmas!” my roommate exclaimed with mock excitement, as she dumped a veritable boatload of mail onto the table this past Friday night. The day’s haul was mostly junk: the PennySaver, catalogues nobody asked for, and credit card offers galore. But lo! The most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education had arrived! Christmas indeed!

Side note: yes, I get the paper version of CHE. It’s not my fault; it was a gift. Don’t judge me.

Now, it was a Friday night, and I’m twenty seven… so naturally I ran straight to my room, put on my pajamas, and tore off the plastic wrapper. “‘The Biggest Jobs Issue of the Year!?’ This is going to be a wild night!”

And then I saw the cover.

“Accused of Sexual Assault, Men Fight Back.”

This article had popped up on one of my newsfeeds once already that week, and it made me angry then. But seeing the article in print—seeing in on the cover, above the fold–dialed that anger up to eleven.

I don’t want to give this article, written by Robin Wilson, any more traffic than it’s already received, so I will not be linking to it in this post. Below is an extended quote that more or less sums the whole thing up:

“Many young men who feel unfairly accused recognize that campus sexual assault is a serious issue, and that some students are truly responsible. But in the current climate, they say, the gender-equity law known as Title IX is allowing women to allege rape after alcohol-fueled sexual encounters in which the facts are often murky. An increasing number of undergraduate men are now fighting back—with the help of parents, lawyers, and a new national advocacy group.”

Blood not curdled enough yet? Here are a couple quotes that will put you over the top:

“Fundamental fairness has become a pawn in the gender wars.”

“[I]n their rush to judgment, colleges are now substituting one class of victims for another.”

Those gems are courtesy of Judith E. Grossman, whose son was accused of rape by a former girlfriend. Her son was found “not responsible” for the incident after a campus hearing, so her argument that colleges are “rushing to judgment” is especially galling. Despite the fact that her son wasn’t punished by his school, much less a criminal court, Grossman still decided to help found Families Advocating for Campus Equality, an organization that—as best I can tell—is committed to maintaining the status quo on American college campuses.

The status quo on American college campuses—for those of you who don’t know—is this: approximately one out of every four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted, only a tiny percentage of those violations are reported, and colleges then do everything in their power to protect the accused—and their own reputation—at the expense of the accuser, who has now been violated twice: once by the man who assaulted her, and again by the educational institution that’s supposed to be keeping its students safe.

Looking at the cover of CHE, I was inarticulate with rage. So much so that I had to set the paper aside for a couple days. Now that I’ve had a little time to let my anger congeal into something manageable, I want to take an extended look at the September 5, 2014 print issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and explain why I think the CEO and Editor in Chief of CHE, Michael G. Riley, needs to apologize to his readers.

THE POLITICS OF FORM

One of my more brilliant professors in the History Department here at UC Irvine frequently discusses what she calls “the politics of form,” a phrase so good I wish I’d thought it up myself. After all, one can learn an awful lot about a text without even reading it.

Next time you pick up a book, ask yourself: “What do the chapter layout, the primary source base, the choice of illustration, and the narrative arc communicate—however subtly—about this author’s politics and priorities?” Of course, you’re learning about the publisher in this process too, but nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise that I try to employ in my day-to-day life.

As I mentioned before, I’d already read the article in question on a feed, and yes, it rankled… but seeing how the Chronicle of Higher Education decided to PRINT the story—and the politics that those decisions imply—sent me into the “full-on rage-induced rant”[1] you’re reading now. Those choices, choices made by the folks at the tippy top of CHE’s editorial staff, turn an already offensive article into something far more egregious.

Let’s examine the politics of form at work in this article, shall we?

THE COVER

Just look at this picture. Really look at it.

Joshua Strange, a college student accused of rape, graces the front page of The Chronicle of Higher Ed looking positively smug… like a man who just got away with murder. Everything about his posture indicates the opposite of victimhood.

A friend of mine characterized the portrait in one powerful word: “aggressive.” A picture says a thousand words, but the word choice in the headline drives the point home still further.

Let’s look past Strange’s far-from-sympathetic countenance, though. Had I handed this photo to the freshman I TAed this past spring in in Film and Media studies, they would’ve had a field day. They’d point out that the low angle shot makes Strange look more imposing and powerful, and renders the accused quite literally larger than the what appears to be his campus’s administrative building.

The relationship between student and administration in this photo is especially problematic considering “the climate” that Grossman mentions. The way she describes it, you’d think administrators were on a witch hunt to find and destroy the careers of virtuous young men everywhere; in fact, fifty five college campuses are currently under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations regarding campus sexual assault. If there’s a witch hunt afoot, the angry mob is sleeping in.

The power dynamics this cover image suggests are so blatant—so hyperbolic—that, to quote yet another friend of mine, “For a second I thought this was The Onion.”

Would that it were.

The Pseudo-Centerspread

The decision to put Joshua Strange above the fold on the front cover of The Chronicle of Higher Education is reason enough for Editor in Chief Michael G. Riley to issue an apology to readers, but unfortunately, he and his team made still more reprehensible decisions with regard to this article.

If you look at the cover picture again, you’ll notice that the text of the article does not begin on the cover. This is not unusual. The problem is where readers are directed next.

Now, it’s been a while since I laid out a newspaper, but here’s what I remember: the most important stories get the centerspread. It’s the most natural place to open the paper, and is laid out in a manner that suggests the article to be worthy of attention.

With a paper as large as CHE, one could have a reasonable argument about whether or not the five-page article in question constitutes the centerspread, but I would argue the layout tells us all we need to know.

The men in this article—men that are “Presumed Guilty,” according to the headline on page A38—didn’t just get prime real estate, they got white space. Perhaps most telling, the five page-long article only shares space with one advertisement.

If that’s not a centerspread, it’s the spitting image.

BUT, BUT… OBJECTIVITY!

If I was the Editor in Chief of the CHE, and needed to try and defend this cover story, I would do so by claiming that the paper—by offering up the perspective of accused rapists—was acting in the interests of objectivity. Of course, after I made that argument, I’d put myself in time out, because it’s a terrible argument.

Judith Grossman, because nothing says objectivity like interviewing a mother about her son.

Judith Grossman, because nothing says objectivity like interviewing a mother about her son.

While American news media writ large is drifting ever closer into the realm of yellow journalism, we still place a tremendous amount of value on the concept of objectivity (hence FOX proclaiming itself “Fair and Balanced,” when even a lot of its viewers are aware it’s anything but). Of course, being an historian, I find the whole concept of objectivity rather laughable, but—as the former Editor in Chief of my college newspaper—I also recognize it as a worthy goal for journalists to pursue.

So, what’s the problem with the CHE cover story? The premise of the cover/centerspread, one might assume, is that—since The Chronicle has reported extensively on campus rape culture—it’s time to examine the issue from the opposite perspective. That’s only fair, right?

No. No it is not.

While we place a high value on objectivity in American culture, we also don’t fully understand what it means.

Let’s look at the statistics.

Perhaps a diagram will help!

  • One in every four women will be sexually assaulted during the course of her life.
  • Rape is the most prevalent form of violent crime committed on college campuses in the United States today.
  • The vast majority of sexual assaults—against both men and women alike—go unreported. In fact, the reporting rate is somewhere in the vicinity of 10%.
  • The percentage of false accusations against men, on and off campus, then, is necessarily still lower, around 2%. You can check out all of these stats for yourself at The Enliven Project.

You can get recent stats about campus rape via Al Jazeera America here.

For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that Joshua Strange and the other “Men Fighting Back” are among the two or so percent of men falsely accused of assaulting their fellow students. Even if the Chronicle of Higher Education somehow managed to find and cover only the falsely accused, devoting a cover story and a centerspread to them suggests that their struggle is equal to that of 20-25% of ALL women in college.

Put in a less math-y way, this article—and it’s positioning within the print version of the paper—perpetuates a false equivalency between the plight of rape survivors and alleged rapists. That isn’t objectivity. That’s spin. That’s headline trolling at its worst.

It suggests, to paraphrase Ms. Grossman, that efforts to eradicate campus rape culture are merely exchanging one class of victims for another.

THE LARGER IMPLICATIONS

The Chronicle of Higher Education, despite doing a great job in the past reporting on rape culture on American college campuses, really stepped in it with this article. It does a tremendous disservice in a moment where the world is finally beginning to realize that we have a major problem on our college campuses. It also adds fuel to the MRM’s (Men’s Rights Movement) fire. If you’re unfamiliar with the MRM… you’re lucky. I’ll quote Jezebel blogger Lindy West here, because I’d rather somebody else do the icky work of explaining who they are and what they do.

The latest men’s rights exposé comes from Emily Matchar at the New Republic. Matchar offers a decent overview of the latest antics of the Men’s Rights Movement (or MRM), from spamming. Occidental College’s anonymous rape reporting form with false reports to plastering Edmonton with posters explaining, “Just because you regret a one-night stand doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.” Their point is to cement in the public consciousness the myth that false rape accusations are a problem approaching or even on par with actual rapes; and that the culture is rigged to support women unconditionally and vilify men, not the other way around. It’s unsurprising that one of the MRM’s tactics is to fabricate hundreds of false false reports themselves (they’re reportedly planning a similar campaign with Dartmouth’s online reporting form)—almost as though, perhaps, the real numbers don’t reflect quite the dire epidemic they’ve been squalling about.

This in a time when women are being sold “rape prevention nail polish.”  Because lord forbid we drink anything in a public place without assuming it’s laced.

So, no, CHE, deciding that your already problematic article was front cover, above the fold, AND centerspread material is not an excusable offense. At the level of journalistic principle, it represents a total bastardization of the meaning of objectivity. At a social level, it gives yet another platform to those out to dismantle the shockingly little progress we’ve made so far in turning college campuses into safer spaces for women.

But, you know, feel free to run articles like this again when the percentage of women facing sexual assault on college campuses is equal to the percentage of men falsely accused of committing said assaults (2%). Until then, get your priorities straight.

I expect better of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I demand better of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

You owe me and the rest of your readers an apology.

We’re waiting…

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

[1] This is a turn of phrase used in a podcast I listen to called “One Bad Mother.” It’s a comedy show about parenting. I listen to it despite having no children of my own. The more you know.

And Another Thing Too…

You know how sometimes you forget to write somebody an email, because you’d already responded to it in your own head? I did something not unlike that yesterday, in my post re: Tenured Radical’s piece on disability. It just now dawned on me that two of the most basic and important points I had to make in that post never actually manifested themselves, because they are so central to who I am, what I study, and my life experience, that I felt like I’d written them. I didn’t.

For those of you who can’t read my mind… here it goes.

As I hope my last post on this subject made clear, I think it’s very important that students be proactive and responsible. I’ve always told my students—regardless of their ability status—that if you don’t advocate for yourself, then it’s unlikely anybody else will either. I’m all about empowering undergraduates to get the accommodations they need, and to kick ass and take names when the occasion calls for it.

It’s important, though, to remember that ability isn’t a static thing. I, for example, had been living with a disability for a grand total of five months when I showed up on the Bryn Mawr campus. I was totally healthy, until one day a doctor told me I wasn’t. Educators cannot and should not assume that every student reporting a disability on a college campus has a condition that is (a) under control, and (b) a longstanding part of their life. This is true of most kinds of disabilities, but is especially important re: mental health issues.

NB: regardless of your current ability status, *you* need to be thinking about these issues. Barring sudden death, we will all experience impairment of one kind or another over the course of our lives. It’s all well and good to empower students with disabilities, but they aren’t the only ones who need this knowledge. Until our education system gives disability studies the space it deserves, this means we need disability service centers on college campuses to be well-staffed, generously funded, and integrated into campus culture.

And another thing too…

My first year of college—fun though it was—was also incredibly taxing. I still needed a LOT of pain medicine just to get around, and the majority of my weekends were spent flat on my back, recovering from my myriad attempts to have a “normal” college experience (which, nerd that I was, basically meant going to class). I wasn’t trying to figure out what services I was entitled to… I was trying to figure out how to be okay.

Could I have been a better advocate for myself? Honestly, no. I was too busy learning how to live with a disability. Which is why having a really great Disability Services Coordinator was so important. I could go to her with my inchoate concerns and she’d translate them into something concrete and actionable.

So yes, empower students with disabilities to fight for themselves, but keep in mind that being an ally sometimes means stepping in so that the student in question can focus on being a student for a while.

And another thing too…

Did I mention that I served as Editor in Chief for Trans-Scripts most recent volume: “Constructing (Dis)Ability?”

I totally did that. If you’d like to see some wonderful academic writing on ability from faculty and grad students alike, check it out.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

My (Very) Hastily Written Response to Tenured Radical

Claire Potter of Tenured Radical wrote a very nice piece today (yesterday on the East Coast) entitled “Do Attendance Policies Discriminate Against Disability?” in response to some well-earned criticism she’d received on a previous post. I wanted to respond to this most recent article at length for two reasons: (1) because, as my last post made clear, these are issues around which I have a good deal of experience, and (2) because I think it’s really important to point out that asking questions is a really good thing. When Potter ended her post by asking her readers what she was missing, I did a mental happy dance. Before you read the rest of this post, I want to urge you to read the piece that inspired it. Also, read the comments. This is one of those rare times that doing so is really worthwhile.

Okay… now that you’re done, I want to throw a few thoughts into the mix. First though, a few disclaimers:

  • I wrote this post unusually quickly.
  • This post includes things I want “able-bodied” faculty and admins to know, but it’s also got advice for folks with disabilities in it too. I don’t think it’s especially confusing, but it’ worth keeping in mind.
  • This post is not all encompassing, and I imagine I’ll be writing on this subject for a long time
  • My ability status has fluctuated quite a lot, so while I feel like I know how to make my way in the world while living with a disability, I don’t feel comfortable identifying as “disabled.” I think of myself more as “temporarily able-bodied,” except when I’m not… like right freakin’ now, for example. (See my last post for the details)
  • I want to be VERY clear that everybody’s experience is different, and that I can really only speak with authority about MY *mobility* issues. I do not speak on behalf of people with disabilities.

Now, in responding to this piece, I’m writing from a fairly unique position. In the past ten years (including right now) there have been four different times that I’ve required accommodations as a result of physical impairment, first at the (private) high school I attended, second at Bryn Mawr (a small liberal arts college, or SLAC), and twice now as a graduate student at UC Irvine.

Potter points out that oftentimes SLACs, cuddly though they are in many ways, are also fairly inhospitable climates for people with disabilities. While this can certainly be true, it is not always the case. Bryn Mawr did a really good job taking care of me. I was the hall advisor on “the accessible hall,” so I lived alongside several other people with mobility impairments. (Yes, we were all kind of lumped together, but it was nice to have a next door neighbor who “got it,” and there were plenty of folks on the hall who didn’t have mobility issues. The only people who thought of it as “the accessible hall” were the folks who… needed an accessible hall.) If my memory serves me correctly, we all did pretty well. Of course, it sucked that some of the historic buildings were inaccessible, but the campus culture was extremely sensitive to accessibility issues. I can honestly say that I never heard anybody—students included—complain about an event being moved, or a class being held in a different building. It’s hard for resentment like that to exist in a community where you know practically everybody. I also never heard “I’m sorry, we just can’t do that” at Bryn Mawr, but I have heard it at UCI… so there you go.

Another good tip Potter offered was that people with disabilities should, if at all possible, tour college campuses to get a sense of the accessibility situation. That is great advice, but the most important thing to do is have a conversation—in person or on the phone—with the person you’re going to be interacting with in Disability Services. If the institution you’re planning to attend focuses on meeting legal requirements and little else, it’s not going to be a good place for you. In the same way that you’re supposed to shop for a doctor, you need to shop for an on-campus advocate. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Disability Services Coordinator at Bryn Mawr, and she made my life significantly easier.

Side note: this is another double-edged sword for SLACs; in my case, the one person charged with making sure I and every other student with a disability got accommodations was a total rock star. Had she not been a rock star, those four years could have sucked. There are plenty of tradeoffs at big schools too: you’re less likely to have a personal relationship with your coordinator, and there’s a lot more in the way of paperwork and red tape to deal with. The campuses are also bigger. So pick your poison. I definitely prefer the former. I was also lucky enough to receive boatloads of financial aid to attend both high school and college, so… coming from a place of privilege.

Speaking of red tape, it can be really hard to know what you’re going to need to get through college, and how exactly to go about getting it. Because college is a new life experience, it necessarily brings up new issues for which one is unprepared. The most important accommodation I had in the course of my undergraduate career wasn’t about where my classes were or attendance policies, or even being excused from classes during inclement weather. No… turned out I really needed a new mattress every year. Can’t say I’d seen that coming when I was getting myself ready to go to college. What your students need may surprise you, but keep in mind that it may also surprise them.

Less surprising: I don’t know if this is true everywhere, and the situation could be unique to students I’ve taught, but I’ve been led to believe that visiting students with disabilities don’t always get the same kind of institutional support from disability services that the rest of the student community receives. So if you’re planning to study abroad—in the US or elsewhere—make sure you know what the institution you’re visiting will (and won’t) do to accommodate you, and what forms of documentation they need from you to do so.

I would talk about the perils of relying on documentation to determine ability status, but that’s already been done beautifully by Emma Whetsell in the comments section of the original article. Props to you, Emma.

Also, if you’re a course instructor, PLEASE mention disability services on the first day of class. Students absolutely should be proactive about getting the accommodations they need, but your mentioning it doesn’t just encourage them, it helps normalize and validate human difference in a way that is vitally important. A lot of instructors work hard to reduce the stigma around mental health services on campus; we need to do the same for disability services.

I’m going to close this meandering blog post by (1) saying another big thank you to Claire Potter for responding to this issue in such a respectful way, and (2) by reminding everybody out there in the humanities and social sciences that ability is a really really important and underutilized lens of analysis. We need to accommodate students, but we also need to integrate Disability Studies into our syllabi. If what we teach is a reflection of our values, the academy still has quite a lot of work ahead of it on this particular score.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

What I’m Learning From A Giant Stack of Obituaries

This week of archival work has left me with a lot to process, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s going to take a long time to sort through everything that I found, both in the archives and within myself. Especially after reading other people’s diaries all day long, I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps, so if you aren’t into navel-gazing, you may want to skip this entry. Actually, just skip the whole blog.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you never know what you’re going to find when you do archival work. I went to the NYPL specifically looking for information about ACT UP’s political funerals, and I found surprisingly little on them. What I didn’t expect to find—or, more accurately, didn’t expect to spend much time or energy on—was obituaries, the vast majority of which were not published in newspapers.

Turns out, I’m bringing home hundreds of them. They don’t fit neatly into my dissertation as originally conceived, so I suspect they are going to become the foundation of a separate journal article. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to rationalize spending a full day (and a lot of my own money) printing obituaries I may never use.

I’m increasingly unconvinced of, and borderline hostile to, the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the professional, and this trip—these obituaries—added a new dimension to my argument. Yes, these are incredible sources, and I think they’ve been underused. They are fascinating to me, and I think my work will benefit from analyzing them, but the fact is, I didn’t need to print every obituary in the archive. Examples would have been sufficient, but no, I just had to print them all.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

I could marshal up an argument that I need all the available evidence blah blah blah, but the fact is, there’s just something about these obituaries. They’re pieces of paper printed from microfilm, and the images are all far too blurry to use in an article, but they radiate pain and grief in a way that’s hard to describe. You have to hold them in your hands yourself. The truth is, I printed every obituary because I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

There’s nothing I can do for the men and women whose obituaries I’m flying home with—I have no illusions that my work will bring them back to life, or change the way we remember (or, in far too many cases, don’t remember) them. I’m completely aware that I only have access to the obits somebody cared enough to preserve, that there are thousands upon thousands of folks who died of AIDS during the same time period, in the exact same city, that didn’t get memorialized on microfilm. I know I’m nobody’s hero, and I like to think that I’m not in the business of writing recovery narratives (think “golden moment” history). Still. It’s about respect.

Historians have feelings, and this week has been a somber one for me. That’s a good thing. I study a horrendous moment in American history, and I chose perhaps the most depressing and gruesome aspect of that moment (the political uses of the dying and dead PWA body). Sometimes I worry that I must be seven different kinds of crazy to even be interested in such a morbid topic, and I frequently worry that there’s something borderline inhumane about being so fascinated by the topic. Trips like this one are important for me, because they remind me that I do in fact find this subject matter deeply upsetting.

I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can’t get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

That’s part of the reason I reject the personal/professional binary. Certainly there are those out there who claim to be “objective,” who pride themselves on their knack for dispassionate narratives, but theirs are never the books I enjoy reading. I want to read books by historians who care deeply about their subject, who respond viscerally to their sources, who are motivated by something greater than mere curiosity. You don’t need an extended autobiographical forward to know when somebody’s truly dedicated to their topic. That kind of passion leaps off the page. I want my words to leap off the page too, even though I know it’s going to make my academic AND personal life much more complicated. Making my word leap off the page means confronting death in a way I never anticipated, in a way that is equal parts gloomy and terrifying.

This wasn’t the plan going into graduate school.

So I’m bizarrely thrilled by my expensive collection of obituaries, because it is a tangible reminder that analytical distance is a choice I can make, not a facet of my personality. I’m leaving New York ecstatic about being sad, because it means that I have the heart to write this story. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suspect it’d mean I was evil, a robot… or both.

I may still be an evil robot, but if I am, I’m an evil robot that’s been programmed to never leave anybody behind.