On privilege in protest

We appreciate the coverage by Liam Adams in The Chronicle of Higher Education on our paper, “Beyond the Incident: Institutional Predictors of Student Collective Action,” which was recently published in the Journal of Higher Education. Yet while we are glad to see interest in this timely topic, we have seen multiple responses to our work following the Chronicle article that we do not believe capture the spirit of our paper.

Briefly, we would like to address two narratives found in those responses. (For further information and clarification on what was in the original article, we suggest this post from Southern Methodist University.)

Among other results discussed in the paper, we found that institutional characteristics, some of which align with class privilege (e.g., the percentage of students eligible for Pell grants), predict the presence of I, Too, Am Harvard-like movements at colleges and universities. In other words, more elite (where elite is defined by selectivity and, in this case, resources) institutions appear more likely to have had one of these movements on their campus. It is likely that this result, in conjunction with a brief, theory-grounded speculation that we made in the concluding section of our paper was the impetus for the title of the Chronicle article, “Is Protesting a Privilege?,” as well as the tack taken by other articles and posts about our paper.

Broadly, we have seen two major types of responses to our work: one contesting the notion that privilege is a relevant factor and one using privilege as a way to critique the movements themselves. Though coming to opposite conclusions, we believe both response types draw upon a common theme. In each of these views, the notion of privilege is seen as a method for discounting the legitimacy of the I, Too, Am movements. Our research is not meant to comment on the validity of the movements at all. Instead our research leads us to believe that while the motivation or capacity of students to protest may indeed be related to privilege (a relationship that we are certainly not the first to discuss in the literature), the presence of privilege does not by direct consequence delegitimize the I, Too, Am and other similar movements. In other words, (ours, in fact, from the paper) since “it may be that students at more elite institutions possess greater capital (along some dimension) such that they have the ability to protest…other important implications [of our findings] includ[e] one that calls for less elite institutions that are not seeing these campaigns to still remain vigilant against oppressive environments.” In other words, the types of “protest” and mobilization that we, as a larger society, generally focus on may occur more frequently at certain types of institutions. This does not mean that institutions without these protests have healthy climates where the students are able to thrive and succeed.

To those who do not like the implication that protests may largely be more available to students with access to greater financial and social resources to be able to protest, we think that realistically interrogating the role of privilege in political participation is an important part of the work of social justice. Discomfort with the fact that those with fewer resources are often less likely to be heard should not discourage proactive effort, but rather should motivate those of us with privilege to work even harder to engage and uplift communities not afforded the same opportunity to speak out, or, for that matter, to work to change the environment such that the ability to speak out is not something afforded only to privileged groups. We believe that activists and advocates who benefit from various forms of privilege (including class, male, white, etc.) should embrace this understanding in order to engage in the reflective work that it takes to break down the systems that produced that privilege. We, the authors, attempt to do the same as we recognize the aspects of our own identities that have afforded us the opportunities to, for example, make this post.

To those, on the other hand, who see privilege as a means to argue that these protests don’t matter, we push even harder. Among those making this argument, there seems to be a conflation of various dimensions of societal oppression and disadvantage into one “privilege” dimension. In this narrative, issues faced by black students attending elite institutions, for example, are questioned as legitimate due to the relative privilege they experience. This conclusion, to us, misconstrues how privilege works as a concept, particularly to the extent that people see it as something where various dimensions cancel each other out. In our view, this is simply not a useful endeavor. Is the argument of a black man speaking on issues of racism invalid because of his male privilege? Is the argument of a white woman speaking on issues of sexism invalid because of her white privilege? We think not. In both of these example cases and others like them, we want to push people to think more holistically about protest as a form of political information that offers insights, however imperfect, into the experiences of others.. It is indeed possible for us, as people, to listen to the voices of those who speak out while also considering the voices who are not heard.

We greatly enjoy talking about this important topic, and are open to further discussion. Now that we’ve closed out 2017, let us move with peace and compassion into 2018.

Mental health and treatment in graduate school

Talking about mental health is hard. Let’s start there.

I think I have always been relatively transparent (some might disagree, which is fair) about my mental health experiences in graduate school. Now that I have the privilege of watching other new scholars grow and have been somewhat removed from my own graduate school experience in terms of time, I get to reflect on my entire journey.

I am not the first, and I will certainly not be the last, to talk about problems with mental health in graduate school education. (See here, here, and here for examples.)  However, for me, my own mental health journey during graduate school was greatly influenced by my sense of what was going on in my community, and as such, I think that simply having academics constantly engaged in this conversation may be an important step forward.

What does the problem look like, though? I cannot speak for anyone’s experience but my own, but in sharing my own experience, I hope that those who are struggling might find some comfort, if not insight. My goals in writing this are two-fold: (a) to help people reflect on their own experiences, and (b) to simply share what helped me through my own issues. In particular, I focus on why treatment was important for me.

Before I say anything else, I would like to emphasize that I am not a mental health professional. I do not claim to know why some of the things that I experienced happened, nor do I assume that other academics, much less a majority, have experienced the same things.

As a brief bit of background, I was not particularly attuned to issues of mental health before starting graduate school. I grew up in an environment that largely diminished mental health issues. However, throughout my time in graduate school, I slowly came to realize that my patterns of thought and behavior, whether chemically-induced or simply habitual, were causing major problems in my academic and personal development.

Some of the signs:

  1. Days to weeks-long periods where I would obsess over previous social interactions.
  2. Not being confident in anything I ever said in class, and taking any contradiction of anything I said in class as a sign that I didn’t belong there and that people didn’t like me.
  3. Complete withdrawal from my peers and colleagues for long periods of time.
  4. Complete dismissal of the idea that they were really peers and colleagues in the first place.
  5. Being unable to attend class because I couldn’t bring myself to be around other people.
  6. A paralysis where whenever I got any indication that I had made a mistake (real or not), I would find myself on my couch, in silence, unable to do anything or speak to anyone for hours on end.
  7. I was never much into crying, but oh goodness, the crying.
  8. Bouts of internal panic where certain stressors would send my brain into a kind of overdrive where my thoughts would become incoherent and I could not process events. This was often accompanied by actual physical reactions as well.
  9. A general lack of motivation or interest in anything I was doing, which I confounded with disinterest in my research or any research at all.
  10. Eventually, realizing that getting up every day was something I dreaded and that if I had my way, I would simply cease to exist.

Again, I do not claim that these issues emerged because of graduate school, but I do think that some aspects of the graduate school experience certainly did not help. Continuing with my disclaimers, I do not know if this experience is the norm, nor do I think it should be normed. I think that as a society, there is some serious work to be done to think about how the structure of graduate student life is or isn’t particularly healthy. We also, I think, need to have a conversation about certain tacit expectations we have that graduate school will be tough and stressful and life-swallowing. Until that happens, though, we as individuals also need to talk about ways that people can cope. Much of this evolution is just learning how to be an adult and deal with stress, but there are many other ways in which it is more specifically about real, psychological problems that cannot be attributed, I think, to simple immaturity.

First and foremost, I got help. I had always been fairly anti-therapy and very anti-medication when it came to psychological issues, but upon educating myself about the risks, I decided that the risks associated with trying treatment were much lower than the risks of leaving my issues alone. After a fair amount of evaluation, I was diagnosed with major depression as well as social anxiety. As such, it was recommended that I work simultaneously on two treatment paths – regular counseling with a psychologist and medication through a psychiatrist. For most of this time, every week (and later, every two weeks), I would have a session with a psychologist. Every two weeks (and later, every month), I would meet with a psychiatrist.

I think there’s an important point I should note here: I did not get better right away.

In fact, I had several fairly major setbacks in the road, including a period where I stopped therapy because I wasn’t seeing progress, at least two changes in my psychologist and one change in my psychiatrist, maybe five or six changes in medication as we tried to figure out what would work, consequential swings in mood and other physical reactions as my body reacted to the chemical changes, a fairly embarrassing moment where I got in an argument with the leader of a group therapy session and never went back, at least one fairly frightening withdrawal period that involved extreme paranoia and insomnia when I stopped taking a medication, and lots and lots of me going into an appointment with nothing to say but, “I feel exactly the same as I felt last week, if not worse.”

In my case, I didn’t see a lot of immediate change, but upon reflecting on my entire treatment period over the course of three to four years, I can see now that I changed tremendously. I went from dangerously low moods to fairly middling moods by the end of graduate school. While I cannot say that I was completely “fixed” by the end, I know that without having addressed it head-on, my outcomes might have been very different.

Not everyone is going to need the same things, but for me, what was probably the most important part of my growth was recognizing I had a problem and sticking with working towards a solution. Farther down the road, I think it paid off. Was the process of writing and completing my dissertation still difficult and stressful? Of course. Did I still have my low moments? Yes. But I was better able to cope with those moments because I had finally gotten to the place where I knew for a fact that those moments would be temporary. I may not have the kind of zest for life that a completely healthy person would have, but there is something comforting about knowing I am nowhere near where I used to be.

In reference to my own experience, were I to go and give my early-scholar self some advice, this is what I would say.

  1. Not all professors are particularly adept at addressing these issues, nor do I think, being a faculty member now, that we can be expected to do so. If you feel that you are in danger, seek professional help, as the conversations you have with unqualified (though well-meaning) individuals may in fact make things worse.
  2. If you feel comfortable enough, do try to be honest with at least one person about what you are going through. No, do not use them as your therapist, but it was critically important to me that at least one person knew what was going on so that when I did have depressive episodes that got in the way of my academic work, at least someone knew why it was happening and didn’t think it was just because I was a bad student.
  3. Patterns are patterns, no matter how bad. Psychological treatment is about more than just suicide prevention (which is what I used to think). You don’t need to be immediately in danger of dying to see a primary care physician. The same applies here.
  4. Putting a priority on your treatment is important. This does not mean ignoring academic responsibilities, but it does mean arranging your life such that you still have time for therapy. The times when I skipped therapy because “I just have too much to do this week” never turned out particularly great.
  5. Advocate for yourself. Communicate with your mental health providers about your goals, fears, and concerns. If you feel that you are not getting what you need, just let them know.
  6. Sometimes, you will withdraw from people who care about you. Sometimes, this will be for quite some time. That is okay. Of course, you should still be respectful of the people around you, but make sure to consider your own needs as well. People who care about you will understand.
  7. Be patient with yourself. Change will not happen tomorrow. It may not happen next week. But over the long-run, change, indeed, will come.