[the absence of] good news

One of the hardest things for me about being a Ph.D. student is not knowing who to share good (academic) news with. Lots of folks share stories about the struggle to explain (& sometimes justify) their academic interests to family. My mom was a professor of business & marketing, but I know she would have understood my work and the more general experiences of what it’s like to navigate academia. A couple weeks ago, I thought to myself, I need to call her.

She died nearly five years ago.

As I prepped for my exam defense last week, I was trying to think through the narrative of my exam process (the written comps, the annotated bib, the article). In many ways, it was the most grueling academic process I’ve experienced. And in many other ways, it was a series of “aha!” moments that allowed me to understand what I value as an academic, as someone invested in disability/studies and teaching.

Within this narrative about my exam experiences my focus on disability and accessibility, I thought it was appropriate to pay tribute to my mom and brother.

A black & white image shows two people sitting on the floor. On the left, my brother sits, staring down at a card, laughing. To the right, my mother faces him, smiling widely. Her head is bald from chemo.
brother & mother

I included one of my favorite photos of my brother & mom together with this statement:

Disability has always been a lens through which I’ve viewed and understood people and environments, my family, and myself. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes disability as “the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all” (5). Similarly, Simi Linton describes disability as a central tenet of the humanities, something we must all critically address. Yet despite the scholarship that constructs disability as a pervasive cultural category, many people come to it for personal reasons: they or someone close to them has a disability. Michael Bérubé addresses this in his foreword to Claiming Disability:

“Part of the reason I changed my mind so dramatically [about disability’s role in the liberal arts] has nothing to do with anything I’ve read; when I became the father of a child with Down syndrome, I realized immediately and viscerally that disability can happen to anyone—including someone very close to you, and including you, too” (x).

I’ve always been aware of my personal connections to disability—growing up with an autistic older brother, negotiating my own depression and anxiety, taking care of my mom when she couldn’t get out of bed or drive to the store. Disability has always been a central component of our family and thus very personal. It wasn’t until I was in my Master’s program, and had Jay Dolmage as a teaching mentor, that I realized disability could be something more. And once I came to Syracuse, I was able to take classes in the Disability Studies Program.

I wondered if it would be strange to include this in an opening statement to my oral exam defense, and my voice wavered as I read it. But as so many have argued—feminist and disability studies scholars, scholars of color—the personal (is political!) is academic. My personal narrative is so interconnected with my academic narrative, my personal interests with my academic interests.

I wondered, too, if it might seem strange to write about this on my blog, which—generally—has served as an academic space. But it’s also been a space to reflect on my feelings about things like Mother’s Day and the overcoming rhetoric of breast cancer.

Spring semester always seems harder. There’s less of a break to re-energize you. There’s more work to do somehow than there was in the fall. The winter, if you live somewhere like Syracuse, can test your will to get out of bed. Your dog is depressed. You’re depressed.

Even the smallest things in April trigger memories for me that don’t happen any other time of the year. Visiting Days taking place these past couple days reminded me of visiting Syracuse three years ago. I’ll never forget the long conversation about my mom at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge with Tim. It was so strange to me that this person I didn’t know wanted to talk to me about something that I didn’t realize was still so incredibly painful two years later. I still point to that conversation as the deciding factor that made me realize Syracuse could—and would—be my home for the next four years.

With the end of the semester creeping closer, I know all of these things will get worse. I’ll get busier once my IRB research is approved, as I write my dissertation prospectus, when my students turn in final feasibility projects. These things will happen simultaneously with events reminding me of my mom, like driving back to West Virginia my senior year for the last Easter I celebrated.

It happens every spring semester.

An hour ago, I started making a mental list of things I needed to remember to get through the semester:

  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Let others help you when you need it.
  • Celebrate every step along the way—no matter how small it may seem.

11 thoughts on “[the absence of] good news

  1. What a deep and moving post, Allison. It is only just my experience as a reader of yours, but I thought to say I am so moved by the power of these treasured moments and people in your life and how profoundly they shape your scholarship. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I read this with gratitude. Much of what you say is new to me–and I’m grateful to you for sharing it–and some of it resonates with my experience. I absolutely agree with–and needed to hear–the “things to remember” you come to at the end.

    Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Margaret. I always feel a little guilty (or maybe it’s a little nervous) writing posts like these because in the back of my head there’s a fear of repercussion. This has been my experience for all of grad school (& longer), and I know so many of us suffer when we try to convince ourselves that these are *personal* issues that we need to keep to ourselves.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post, Allison. We’ve never met but I recently started following you on Twitter. I’m also a third year PhD student in Comp/Rhet (at UW-Madison) studying disability, also reflecting on my prelims process and writing my introductory essay (lots of parallels here!). I’m so glad you decided to use the personal in your intro to your prelims–honestly, I don’t think there’s any other way to honestly explain one’s development as a scholar. I truly believe that everything we do, research and teaching, is and should be deeply personal–if we can better know ourselves, then we can better understand ourselves in relationship to others. I look forward to looking around the rest of your website–it looks lovely and thoughtful all around!

    1. I was so pleased when I first read your comment. These stages–particularly the exams, for me–can feel isolating, so I appreciate the kind words & pointing out the parallels between our interests/progressions! I just followed you on Twitter, so maybe our paths will cross again 🙂

  4. Allison, I made my way to your blog via your review posted today on the Sweetland DRC site. I also just listened to the “Overcoming breast cancer” podcast a couple of days ago. I wish that I had a profound response to this post & to the podcast, but I don’t. Instead, I just wanted to – as a graduate student in Rhet/Comp whose personal life significantly influences her scholarly life – express my gratitude for your willingness to share your thoughts and experiences as you reflect on how, as you note above “the personal (is political!) is academic.” I very much look forward to following you in this space.

    1. Hi, Jennifer! Thank you so much for the incredibly kind words. I don’t have a particularly thoughtful response back to yours, other than to let you know that your comments are so lovely and appreciated. Nice to “meet” you.

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