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.