Re-examining Life in Academia in the Face of Death – A Post-Ac Guest Post

By Cassia Roth


From Karen:  Upon learning of Cassia’s story, I asked her if she’d be willing to share her story in a guest post.  She kindly agreed.  Then, I also encountered Darcy Hannibal’s story, which we posted last week.  These two stories of reevaluating the academic career in the face of profound loss and grief are very powerful.  I hope that you find them as meaningful as I do. 

Cassia Roth is a PhD candidate in History. She is a contributing writer at Nursing Clio, where she blogs on reproductive justice, human rights, and women’s health. You can find her on Twitter @Mixmastercass.

Last academic year started out typically for me. I was set to defend my dissertation and receive my PhD in history. With the help of my adviser and The Professor Is In, I had gone on the job market. I received an interview and was the finalist for several post-docs. I felt good about my work, and I was excited about going into the Academy. My partner Clayton, who I had met during fieldwork in Brazil, was making plans to move here. We were going to get married and begin the process of getting him a visa. He supported my career and was willing to follow me wherever I needed to go. Everything seemed to be on the right track.

Then, on April 28, 2015 my life changed forever. Just a few weeks before Clayton was supposed to board a plane for the first time and come to the United States, he was brutally murdered. Clayton was a police officer in Rio de Janeiro. On the evening of the 28th, three drug traffickers followed him as he drove his motorcycle home from work. When they got close enough on their own bikes, they shot him in the back 20 times. He survived for more than five hours before dying on April 29, 2015 at 12:45 a.m. The injustice of the situation is staggering (you can read the whole story here). But to summarize the situation, drug trafficking had been on the rise on the region where he worked. Clayton was targeted and executed for being an honest police officer who stood in the way of both trafficking and police corruption.

Before Clayton’s murder, I felt secure in my future. What had started out as a path to getting my PhD morphed into something bigger. I had gone to Brazil to do fieldwork, and then I met Clayton. He hadn’t drawn me to the country, but soon he became an integral part of my connection to Brazil. I loved him, and that love supported me not only emotionally but also intellectually. And now he has been cruelly executed. My feelings for my work are inextricably tied to Clayton’s murder. A shaky academic foundation indeed.

In the months since his death, I have felt (among many emotions) confused as that once-solid career path has disintegrated before me. Now, I am not sure I will be joining the tenure rat race. And I have begun to feel liberated. That feeling of freedom—I have so many options I can choose from! I don’t have to move to Podunk, USA because it’s a “good” job!—also makes me feel incredibly guilty. Did I really need the murder of my partner to come to the conclusion I can make a career decision that is best for me (instead of just doing what is expected)? And not just best for me in a moment of extreme pain and grief, but for the rest of my life. I felt like I had finally spit out the Kool-aid and surfaced from a cultish trance. Clayton’s death exposed many of the misgivings I have always felt about an academic career but never fully examined. These doubts have only been reinforced since his murder.

For example, the indifference and downright harshness of the peer-review process amidst my grief underlined the hidden inhumanity of academia. Several months after Clayton died, I received the anonymous peer reviews on an article. All three reviewers gave important feedback (and the article needed serious revision). But one of the reviewers decided that being mean was the only way to get their point across. Were the comments on “poor writing” and “unsurprising” omissions really necessary? This is not to say that other employment sectors will not harshly review one’s work, or that people can be much crueler if they are allowed to work anonymously. Rather, I feel that this anonymous cruelty has become so normalized in the Academy that its pervasiveness is now hard to pinpoint and root out. Constructive criticism always makes our work stronger. But do we have to bludgeon you to death before bringing you back to life? And then do we have to pretend we don’t do that? As TPII says, it’s an extremely hierarchical system that disavows that hierarchy. That makes it even more insidious.

Or take an interview I got last month. The committee gave me 23 hours notice, and one of them walked out in the middle of our Skype session. Again, this disorganization and lack of manners is not specific to Academia. But since we pretend to be much more civilized than other sectors, can we at least try to live up to our rhetoric?

And while I have been amazed with the support I have received by people within my department, university, and field of study, I have also been unsurprised with the disappearances of other, important people in my academic career. I feel an unabated rage towards colleagues and professors who theorize about violence but have gone AWOL when it hits so close to home. Us Latin Americanists have a tendency to idealize poverty and violence in the region. I want to tear up the books and storm out of the talks that pretend to really get at the issue of urban violence but end up sounding like one-sided diatribes against whoever Academia thinks is to blame (in Rio de Janeiro, that’s often the police).

But I haven’t turned my back just yet. There are good people wandering the ivory tower. Take my adviser, who during this time has been nothing but supportive. In fact, without his help, I would not have been able to get through the months after Clayton’s death. He galvanized the department and the field to come to my aid. And many, many people did. I am forever grateful for an adviser who not only expertly guided me through my graduate career but also provided support and friendship beyond campus. But I feel this support is rare for most graduate students.

So as I navigate the raw and jagged contours of my life without Clayton, I am heeding the words of a good friend of mine: choose happiness. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that happiness means a life away from Academia.

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Re-examining Life in Academia in the Face of Death – A Post-Ac Guest Post — 6 Comments

  1. A very powerful post, and I’m sorry to hear about your awful experiences. I’m not going to attempt to say whether you should leave academia or stay, but I would say this: (1) it sounds like you have a good, supportive adviser and are in a good, supportive department, and (2) it sounds like you have important ideas about the causes of urban violence that run contrary to much of the current thinking in academia, and so your voice would be a useful addition that might push the field in a more worthwhile direction. Given those things, you might want to at least finish your degree before you cut bait (or you might not). The larger culture of academia can be pretty toxic, yes. I quite understand wanting to get away from that; I decided to quit the tenure-track rat race myself, fairly recently. Just make sure you make that choice for the right reasons, and that you have a good plan for what you’ll do instead. Good luck!

    • Thank you for your kind comments. I am definitely finishing my degree, and I have decided to go on the job market next year, for the last time with my PhD in hand.

      And yes, I think often about how my experience could shift some current debates–and that is important to me. I have not given up. But I think what I see is a future that doesn’t have to be academia, and that is both strange and a huge relief, but it is not set in stone. I appreciate your advice.

  2. I dropped out of my Ph.D. program 20+ years ago and still do not regret doing so. I thought academia was unique. I thought it walked the walk, not just talked of equity and ideals and lofty intellectual pursuits, far removed from the base business practices of corporate America. When my professor asked 2 third years if they’d ever seen Dr. So-and-So, and they said no, and he made it clear that she was hot, it sunk in that this was no ivory tower and no gilded cage. This was plain old everyday bullshit found in the halls or near the water coolers of any business anywhere. Duh. So I left. And make twice as much and work half as hard. And am perfectly prepared to hear guys talk about how hot someone looks. At least out here, they don’t even try to pretend they are above such things as basic human nature. It is refreshingly honest. I like it, the unpresuming attitude of the business world. Academia is far too stale and self-delusional for my tastes. Stay within the ivory tower if you choose to, but you are only fooling yourself. Most of us just aren’t that impressed anymore by the Academie. Or its inmates.

      • You seem happy in your choice, and I am glad to hear that. Moreover, your critiques are spot on. However, I hope that we can still critique sexism, hierarchies, racism, etc. in the business world (they don’t belong there either). Yes, it is extra hypocritical when, for example, the very people who teach feminist pedagogy are extremely patriarchal in their own relationships. But that doesn’t make it okay for us to perpetuate sexism, etc. just because we aren’t in Academia. I have decided to finish my PhD, and I am unsure of my future, but it is good to hear so many responses of people who have made an array of different choices and are happy with them. Thank you.

  3. Fortunate are the people who don’t suffer a loss during those fragile University years. While nobody died in my case, I very nearly fucked everything up (and was fucked for a couple of years longer).

    In case of emergency, break wall and reach out to colleagues, friends and family. Do NOT close yourself up. And remember, eyes on the prize! And one step at a time!

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