Wednesday, August 14, 2013

You Are Human First: Reframing Identity, Success, and Failure

This guest post was written by post-academic Christine Slocum, who blogs at Seattleite from Syracuse

Remember, you are human first.

Academia and graduate school are greedy institutions, demanding a large portion of time and life. When this portion has been carved out, cultivated, and lived for a long time, one’s identity can be colored by it. Worse, one’s identity can be outlined, folded, and shaded by academia if you spend a long enough time in the socialization process. Perhaps once this was welcomed, but I suspect that it may not be now if you are at this web site. That is OK.

Marx thought human’s species-being and the meaning in their life is tied to what they do. Therefore, the means of production is the key to both human oppression and liberation. Not owning the fruits of one’s labor and being able to exercise their creativity was to be alienated from their self. While socialism is hardly a common feature of American thought, identifying one’s self with their work is common in American culture. One is a journalist. One is a mother. One is a professor. All of these definitions involve specific activities. Rarely does one describe their self simply as being instead of the dominant features of their doing.

I would argue that “being” is a good place to center yourself in the midst of a transition.

Mystical ViewCreative Commons License Hartwig HKD via Compfight

Leaving graduate school has three steps: deciding it’s not working, leaving, and doing something new. This is far easier if your doing and being are distinct entities. Otherwise, how do you determine what that third step will be? If your self was your activity, your sense of self evaporates when your activity does. You are not just imagining a new path, you may be imagining a new you. How daunting.

Remember, you are human first.

Many facets of identity are relational, as though it was not enough to simply exist. I am going to say that you are alright just as you are. You have inherent worth and dignity, independent of how you have spent your days and how others treated you as you did so. Beyond your dissertation or thesis, beyond your papers, conferences, and students, you are human first. When you wake up in the morning, you are a living, breathing person. You need to eat. You need sleep. You need shelter from the elements. You need companionship and relationships. Eventually you will die. These needs are independent of graduate school and academia.

Humans are animals, if social and smart ones who are quick to construct complicated worlds around ourselves. We aspire to the privileged worlds that take for granted the dirty basics of human life. The purpose of the life of the mind is to elevate it above the body. Perhaps you are inclined as an intellectual, but I guarantee you are a corporeal being. Your mind is located in your body, separated from the broader world. Your experiences are possessions, they are not ways to define you. You may identify as a former graduate student, but I say think of yourself as a person who chose something different.

Academia is not the ocean or mountains. Academia is a social institution. It only exists because it was invented to by human beings. Academia could be viewed through the lens of a social fact, in that it is beyond and outside individuals and subjects them to constraints. Of course, it is also comprised of individuals who could form and change it (except they feel powerless to do so and thus buy in). Often the values surrounding Americans are the capitalistic ones of materials and profit. The ones in academia are of reputation, prestige, and elitism. Nonetheless currency, if it’s not the monetary sort. The goal in both places is to accumulate the most currency. If you spend enough time in the academic world, you are bound to relate to those as laudable goals. Maybe your identity was tied into richness as an academic: being a scholar, being a published researcher, or the aspiration thereof. Perhaps you spent your sunny days inside, your holidays away, and your weekends at the keyboard being this goal. Perhaps leaving has the taste of a businessperson closing their shop: failure, inviting a sort of poverty from an opportunity unsuccessfully capitalized upon.

Remember, you are human first.

The first step for me to leave graduate school was to treat it like a job. This is a common strategy suggested to create a work-life balance and to keep yourself on track. I have had many jobs, and the feature I tended to value most was the time in-between. Jobs were things I did, not things I were. This inoculated me from becoming too much of a graduate student and kept my focus on doing graduate school.

Once graduate school became something I did, my struggles and failures became easier to accept (even if I was, overall, pretty good at playing the role of graduate student), because failing did not reflect on me, it reflected on what I did. My sense of self was distinct. Success or failure became a possession, not a feature of my identity. When I started viewing myself with the same care and concern I would give to others, it was easier to disentangle graduate school from my life.

Remember, you are human first. The odds you would have conceived are slim, but here you are. You are lucky. You are valuable no matter what you do; you have inherent worth and dignity as a human being. Academia may have failed, but something else won’t. It may take awhile to find out what that something else is. That’s OK. Struggle is OK. You will be fine, just remember to take care of yourself.

Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” in “The Summer Day.” Before all things, you are a living, breathing person with a gift of time in front of you. If you are living then you are not failing; you are doing alright. Move into your chosen direction, be it staying or leaving, and accept your living self unconditionally. You are human first, and what a success you are.

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