On Academic Weariness and Embracing Uncertainty

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in an occasional series called Eddies, in which Tina Adcock chats with fellow NiCHE editors on a topic (or topics) of their choosing that’s been on their mind lately. In this post, Jessica DeWitt talks about navigating weariness, uncertainty, and change as she leaves academia. You can find all the series’ posts here.


Tina Adcock: So, what’s been on your mind lately, Jessica?

Jessica DeWitt: Well, honestly, a lot of heavy stuff. Health, career, the future.

I’ve been thinking about health a lot. I’m just now crawling out of a debilitating week or so of my various interconnected chronic health conditions (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, migraines). I’m sure that collective and individual stress due to COVID-19 led to last week’s flare-up. Other people I know with chronic conditions are also experiencing these kind of physical breakdowns.

I started seriously tracking my migraines in January, and it turns out that I apparently have an off-the-charts severe disability. I’ve had a migraine 72 out of the last 90 days.

I finished my PhD a year ago and have basically taken the year off. One of the goals I’ve had is to reconnect to my body, learn how to listen to it, and figure out how to manage my health problems in a self-compassionate way. I’ve never really allowed myself to do this. I’ve always prided myself on pushing through physical and emotional pain. And now that I’m learning how to be kinder to myself, I’m worried about how these challenges will affect my career. It is one of the myriad reasons that I’ve decided not to pursue a traditional academic trajectory. How do I hold down a job if I have to lie down for hours most days? I don’t know. I’m worried.

Which I suppose takes me to the last major thing on my mind recently: what comes next in my career? I’ve never embraced uncertainty before, and that is exactly what I’m doing right now. Part of me is loving it. I’m really enjoying just being. Living in the moment is exhilarating. Another part of me feels like I SHOULD feel guilty. That I don’t deserve this kind of rest. That I’m being lazy. These are the internal thoughts of a recovering overachiever. I have a month or so left on my current contract, and then I have nothing lined up. This is on purpose. And now that COVID-19 is wrecking the economy, I have even less clue what the future holds.

Overall, I’m not that worried, though. And that is weird. I was programmed from a young age to worry. I’ve always carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. Allowing myself to put down some of that worry has been a tremendous gift I’ve given myself over the past several years.

Jessica’s garden. Photo: Jessica DeWitt.

TA: I’m so sorry to hear about your migraines and about the flare-up of your other chronic health conditions. I feel like one of the simultaneously best- and worst-kept secrets in academia is the immense toll that this kind of work takes on many people, psychologically and physically. It seems like people are beginning to talk about this some more in private and occasionally in public, using platforms such as Chronically Academic. But it’s still a difficult subject to broach and to speak openly about, because of the precarity of many scholars’ positions and the hyper-competitive state of the job market, to name just two of many factors. And to have all this compounded by a global crisis such as a pandemic… whew. It’s a lot—too much—to handle.

I’m so glad to hear that you are starting to listen to your body and what it needs, to be kinder to yourself, and to face the future with more curiosity than worry. Are there any specific strategies, or philosophies, or other things that have inspired you in this journey so far, or that have given you some useful tools to work with? I’ve done some online coursework in mindfulness-based stress reduction; while I’m aware of the critiques of the growing mindfulness industrial complex, I also found some of mindfulness’ insights genuinely revelatory in terms of how I approach the world. It’s strangely reassuring as an academic to be told, for instance, that you are not your thoughts.

JD: I feel like I need to back up and provide some context for where I find myself now with regard to productivity and health. Something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately, particularly on my worst migraine days, is whether my health is getting worse or if I am just paying more attention to it. My gut reaction is that it is getting worse, but if I am actually honest with myself and look back in time, I’ve been chronically ill since I was a child. In some ways I am more well now than I have been in other periods of my life.

So what contributes to this disconnect? Firstly, I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). From a very young age (as early as five) I created systems and schedules that controlled the minutiae of every hour of my day, and I prided myself on following these rules and schedules at any cost. If I had a blister on my foot, I still ran that mile after school because that was what I was supposed to do at that time. Weakness was not an option, and weakness was listening to my mind and body at the expense of sticking to the routine and schedule. OCPD is a coping mechanism that develops in young children; it provides comfort in order and the removal of decision-making. Much of my adulthood has been devoted to learning how to live my life without these strict structures, but I still have OCPD. And it helps me in some ways! It is partially why I can appear to be super-humanly productive while coping with a migraine disability.

A second reason for the disconnect, and one that is probably more of a universal experience, is aging. There seems to come a point, often in one’s thirties, where you can’t ignore your body any more. It isn’t that you are necessarily in more pain, either. Part of it, I think, is the loss of hope. In my teens and twenties, I thought that I could fix my body. If I ate this way, exercised this way, lost this amount of weight, slept this amount, accomplished this, etc., then eventually I would get better. Moving from this denial to recognizing and accepting that things will not get better is part of having a chronic illness, and part of the grieving process that inevitably comes with age.

In 2017, towards the end of the fifth year of my PhD, I hit a wall. I had a fallout with some key figures in my life that left me psychologically and physically shattered. My supervisor told me to take as much time as I needed to recuperate, and I spent much of the summer in a state of depression and confusion. That summer probably added a year to my the length of my PhD, but it was critical for my overall well-being. That summer I re-evaluated what was important to me and what gave me life. I started going to therapy regularly, and that would be the first thing that I recommend. Seek out therapy. Mental health is important.

Jessica’s garden. Photo: Jessica DeWitt.

Although I have not specifically sought out mindfulness techniques, I suppose that I have embraced a kind of mindfulness philosophy. First and foremost, I’ve embraced rest. I no longer wake up to an alarm. I haven’t for 3.5 years. I sleep when I am tired; I wake up naturally. I am painfully aware that the luxury of sleeping on your own natural schedule is an enormous privilege, and one that I may have to give up sooner rather than later. How awful is that? That we have created a society that robs people of this basic form of self-care? I have found great healing in following The Nap Ministry on social media. The Nap Ministry states that: “We believe rest is a form of resistance and name sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue.” I am also an advocate of pleasure activism and would suggest that everyone read Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, a collection of essays edited by adrienne maree brown. (I have written about how brown’s Emergent Strategy has influenced my social media work.) brown and her work has been one of my greatest influences during this period of my life.

More basically, I find keeping a mood tracker very soothing. I’m not particularly artistic—or, rather, I don’t find a great deal of joy in most artistic activities. But a basic mood tracker has helped me accept the ups and downs of life. It visualizes one’s experiences and makes even one’s worst days part of a beautiful whole. I’ve also gotten back into tarot reading after a hiatus during my twenties. Many people assume that tarot readings involve some kind of kooky fortune-telling—which it can—but in all actuality it is a tool for deep personal reflection. It is a kind of self-therapy session. I think everyone can benefit from owning their own deck.

Most importantly, I’ve started practicing radical honesty, radical relationships, and radical intimacy, both in my private and public life. It is astounding how powerful it is to simply share one’s truth in public. I’ve decide to reject the molds that do not suit me, whether it be the typical academic track or the heteronormative relationship escalator. I’m moving forward both in my personal relationships and career with the goal of being true to myself and building strong connections to other people.

TA: On that note, how do you think the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects might change how people approach work, life, and the balance between the two? In academia, we’re already seeing existing disparities magnified: for example, submissions to peer-reviewed journals by men have risen in the last two months, but those by women have fallen, presumably because the latter are responsible for much of the care work at a time of physical distancing. But we’re also seeing increased awareness of the toxicity that pervades discourses of productivity and overwork more generally in academia, and a concomitant realization that this is not a sustainable way for any of us to live. Might this crisis help move us toward a more caring society?

JD: Again, I am drawn to adrienne maree brown:

things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Living through the unveiling

The pandemic is uncovering the parts of academia and broader society that are broken. These broken parts are deeply entrenched in a broken system that still works for many people. It is a system that thrives on silence and shame and power dynamics. These are forces that will not be easily tamed, and I don’t think that we will magically find ourselves in another, kinder timeline when we break through the other side of this pandemic. But we can use it as an opportunity to move forward in the fight for the world that we want. We can use it as an opportunity to tell our stories and speak out. That brings us back to radical honesty and radical empathy and radical intimacy. We must be loud. We must learn how to say no. “No, I will not work myself into the ground.” “No, I do not want to jump through that hoop for you.” Sometimes this will mean losing out on opportunities. It will mean being uncomfortable. It will mean fighting for things that you may not directly benefit from. Some of us will do this work from within the academy and the system. Others, like myself, will do the work by outright saying no to the demands of the system and working from the outside. We need both sets of folks. We need to keep talking.

TA: You mention above that health-related challenges were one factor in your recent decision not to pursue a traditional academic career. Would you be willing to share with readers some of the other factors that led you to make this decision?

JD: I suppose the most simple answer to this question is that I don’t feel like it. I deeply don’t want to. But if you were to go back five or six years and tell my past self that I would be so nonchalant about not pursuing a tenure-track job, I would not have believed you. A lot has happened in the past five years that led me eventually to the public announcement I made at the beginning of March:

The same summer that I came to the realizations I mention above is the same summer that I started to question whether I wanted to stay in academia. I think this is the summer that I truly grew up. I no longer connected to the person I used to be, an anxious overachiever who built her identity around perfection and climbing the academic ladder. I was tired. I am tired. I wanted to be more. I am more. And, frankly, I was kind of bored. I had spent my whole life chasing approval, and I finally realized it was an unreachable fantasy.

I’ve already proved myself. I want to rest.

The following winter, in 2018, I was interviewed for a position that was academia-adjacent. I would have been working with and managing academics and still involved in that world, but free from the pressures of teaching and publishing. This prospect was exhilarating, and it made me begin to realize what I really wanted to do after my PhD. I began to document my slow acceptance of a post-academic lifestyle in my Problems of Place posts for Environmental History Now. But still I felt the need to keep my options open. I would consider both academic and alt-ac opportunities, I thought. My immigration status, which demanded that I stay in Saskatoon and blocked me from working in Canada, bought me nearly a year to sit in this space of indecision. But once my Canadian permanent residency came through this past January and there was nothing blocking me from applying for post-docs and TT jobs, I had to be honest with myself.

People kept sending me TT job ads and telling me what a perfect fit I would be for it. “You must apply!”, they would say. But I had no desire to. I didn’t want to go back to the academic grind. It was time to make a decision. So I made a public statement and locked myself in.

The response to my announcement that I was leaving academia was rather overwhelming. I received many personal notes and messages wishing me luck and thanking me for speaking honestly about this in public. One thing that sets me apart, I think, from other people who have made similar announcements is that I’m deciding not to even try to break my way into academia. There is a non-ac/post-ac script that one is seemingly expected to follow. You are supposed to toil for years on the shitty job market, send out dozens of job applications, work two post-docs, move for sessional lectureships yearly, and then… after you’ve reached the end of your rope… you reluctantly accept that academia doesn’t want you. There are a lot of moving stories that follow this general script, and I relate to them on some level. But that really isn’t my story. What if I don’t want academia? What if I skip this step? What if… gasp… I don’t even try?

Jessica’s garden. Photo: Jessica DeWitt.

The parts of being a historian that I love include writing for a broad audience, educating and engaging with the public, building networks and interpersonal relationships, following my interests freely, reading broadly, and looking at a landscape and seeing the interweaving forces that brought it into being. These are all things that would likely have to take a back burner if I pursued a TT job. I want to make these things front and center in my life. I want to have the time and energy to do them. I don’t want to burn out again. I want to take my unique, historically-minded view of the world and make tangible change in my community. I still have no idea how my post-ac career trajectory will develop. And I’m aware that there are things that I am giving up. For instance, I would still like to turn my dissertation into a book, but I may not have the time or financial capacity to do so, depending on where I end up. But I will also likely have more time for other types of writing. There are always pros and cons to every decision.

By not pursuing an academic job, I hope to continue my project of being unapologetically myself. I may not end up being a professor or writing several academic books, but I am still a boss scholar. I’m still an academic revolutionary. I’m still fighting for our scholarly community. I’m still changing the script. From outside academia, I have the freedom to call out some problems that others still in the system may not be able to call out safely. I want to continue to carve out opportunities for others, for those who come after me. I’m Dr. DeWitt: hear me roar. I don’t expect to shrink into the background any time soon.

TA: Is there any knowledge you’ve gained through these experiences that you wish you could communicate to your younger self, or to other people at similar stages in their careers or lives? I know this question is a little clichéd. But I think it can be hard to balance out the desire to share hard-won lessons with students or younger colleagues in order to spare them some of the pain we’ve experienced, with the knowledge that not all our experiences are generalizable and that sometimes people need to live through things for themselves to be able to come to certain realizations, or to gain certain kinds of knowledge or insight.

I believe every moment of every day should be a pleasurable experience. If it is not, then it is time to question what is happening and why you decided to endure it.

Ingrid LaFleur

JD: If I were to boil my experience down into a single piece of advice for my younger self or those who are coming up behind me, it would be to ask yourself frequently: are you enduring, or living? Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Are you expected to do it? Is it worth it? Is this what you want? I am reminded of the above quote from Pleasure Activism by Ingrid LaFleur: “It is time to question what is happening and why you decided to endure it.” So simple, so powerful. Listen to yourself and constantly ask, “Why am I doing this?” If you aren’t satisfied with the answer or can’t answer it, then make some changes. Don’t be afraid of change. The future we want requires change.

TA: Words to live by, truly. Thanks so very much, Jessica.

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Jessica DeWitt is a historian of the American and Canadian environment, editor, and digital communications strategist. She is an editor and social media editor for NiCHE.

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