Archive for ‘academia’

August 30, 2011

one year ago.

by la rebelde

On this day, one year ago, I filed my pinche dissertation.  Over the last month I have thinking a lot about where I was, spiritually, this time last year.  My soul had been bruised deeply, but still I kept writing, kept reading, kept thinking, kept feeling.  Read. Write. Read. Write.  Everyday.  Make the deadline.  Cite the right books, articles, and arguments.  Prove you are worthy of their approval.

Be the scholar they say you can’t be.
Be the activist-scholar they don’t want you to be.
Be the love you imagine it possible and necessary to be.

On my birthday last year, my friends pleaded with me to take a short break.  “Even just two hours to celebrate over brunch!” I finally gave in.  “But only for 2 hours!” I’d said.  Manito C came to keep me company for a couple days.  He read novels while I wrote.  Friends who live far away called to check in on me, read my writing, helped me hold on to what I had earned.  They are phenomenal.

All you need is a signature.  The only way I finished was to write from the heart.  I’m still learning how to do that.

On this day, one year ago, I became a Doctor.  It was confirmed with the small, but not-so-small, email  from my U, attached to which was a .pdf of a certificate saying I’d completed all the steps, jumped through all the hoops, checked off all the boxes big and small, to attain the degree.  It was the most anti-climactic moment of my entire educational experience.

And then I slept for three weeks.

Today my friend and I were making small talk with a woman at a coffeeshop.  She asked if I was a college student.  Before I could reply, my friend said, no she’s a professor!  Sometimes my friends are more excited about it than I am.  I still feel weird saying I’m a professor.  But I am one.  The woman said I look “too young to be a professor.”  Funny, my abuela said that to my profesora a few years ago. I guess professors are supposed to be stuffy white-haired old men with tweed, instead of spunky 30-something brown women in mini-skirt, hoop earrings and purple nail polish.

Healing is a long process.  Along the way, I realized the process is as much about the events of the last year as it is the historia of my Self, and the recasting of my spirit from a stronger place, a place of love and community.  I’m glad to be here, no longer there, moving toward where I want to be, and creating new stories.

April 5, 2011

starting place.

by la rebelde

So, I have a presentation coming up.  Not the usual dry academic kind where one often begins with a good story and ends up trailing off into an abyss of monotony, but monotony about really important things like, you know, social justice, and the creativity and strength of those who came before us in the face of imperialism.  This time I have to talk about my academic “journey” to a group of aspiring academics at my small-midwestern-college alma mater–undergraduate seniors who have been placed on the Ph.D. track, like I was.  The administrators of the program said they chose me because I’m “real” and “NOT boring.”  Ha!  I guess I should take that as a compliment.

I know they want me to be an example of someone who “made it,” to demonstrate that it is possible to get all the way through a doctoral program and come out a model of academic achievement and still be “real.”  On paper, I have been one of the lucky privileged ones.  I did finish the program at an elite institution.  I got a fancy postdoc in a location where I want to live, during an incredibly tight market.  But the costs were extremely high. (And I’m not just referring to my student loans!)  During the last year of my dissertation-writing, I experienced one of the worst soul-crushing emotional traumas ever in my life.  To be honest, I’m not sure it was all worth it.

The only way I got through the last bit, was to remind myself that I decided to go to graduate school for good reasons–reasons that I believed in, reasons that people who had greatest power over my future and, at that moment my livelihood, did not share.  And fortunately I had incredibly supportive friends and family who believed in me and checked in on me.  I am still healing, but I am stronger.

I know I’m not alone in struggling with the contradictions of being part of, and resisting, the academic industrial complex.  For this presentation and in most other instances, my story, my work, and my knowledge are commodities that are supposed to make advisers and institutions look good.  And so, I don’t think I can give the kind of celebratory pro-grad school presentation that they expect of me.  I can’t say “hooray academia!” when I’m really thinking, “fuck that crazy shit and go do something else that will make you happy!”  But, there are many lessons learned.  And that seems a good place to start.

July 21, 2009


by la rebelde


Well I finally have the internets! Modernity is now at large in my new apartment, even if files remain in boxes, open, half-full. Files that document my many years in higher education, but which tend to be structured by my academic world, a world that butts up against the alternative worlds I struggle to create. Boxes of check marks—courses taught, courses taken, exams completed, articles read, papers written. Check. Check. Check.

These are the boxes that Manito D could not help unpack, lest I lose something super central to the course of my dissertation process, that I might “need” immediately…or soon anyway. In retrospect, the things he helped with were the really important ones—dishes, clothes, furniture arrangement, lights, fans. He moved the washing machine so I could have room to put the detergent in a place I could reach. He re-wired my shower caddy so I could reach my shampoo. He attached my bed to the headboard I have on loan from an amiga. He assembled my most crucial new purchases: A new bedside lamp that actually works without risking electrocution. A rug to cushion my footsteps. A step-stool that will allow me to reach everything in the kitchen cabinets because, well, I’m dang short. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve moved into an apartment designed for mutants. Literally, when I stand in the shower I can see the underside of the soap dish that is built into the wall.)

And finally, after a week of moving madness, we stopped dealing with boxes, grilled some chicken, and went to the beach. I sat chillin on the sand while Manito D dove through wave after wave. Then we had pizza and ice cream. I missed him even before I dropped him off at the airport for his return trip to the homeland.

May 22, 2009

embracing solitude.

by la rebelde


I spent a couple days this week at the Spiffy-ton library–not researching in los archivos like before.  Just writing.  My colegas recommend that I write there because in the “reading room” you are not alone.  You are not alone.  There are many others hunched over in the darkness, typing away. The only light, it seems, comes from the brass desk lamps–one at each desk–that shine on books and documents propped up under them.  The lamps and the eery blue-ish glow of laptop screens reflecting on pale faces adorned with spectacles.  I am often the youngest one there–or at least one of the only ones without a head of white hair.  The room has that old library feel like those old ivy schools back east.  All four walls are two stories high, covered floor-to-ceiling with books. There are no windows and no skylights.  It feels like a dungeon to me.

At 11:45 most folks begin to trickle out for lunch, meeting up with other scholars who frequent the Spiffy, most of whom have come to town for an intense visit to look at all that old dusty stuff they keep in the basement vaults somewhere beneath where we sit.  A couple of times, I have had pleasant conversations with well-established visiting scholars, who, like me, have no one else to eat lunch with.  We talk about the beautiful botanical gardens, our research, our home institutions.

It is a nice place to get lots of work done, but I can’t seem to get on board with the gushing excitement everyone else seems to feel about working there.  It may be real pretty, but it is, after all, a private and very exclusive library that requires an extensive process to prove one’s scholarly business in order to enter the building.  Nothing demonstrates exclusion like 10-foot-high iron fencing stretching a few miles around the perimeter.  And as a young-looking brown woman, I have been chased down the hallway while entering with a group of white scholars because the receptionist didn’t get a good look at my research badge.  Once I was turned away at the gate when the grounds were closed to the public (even though the library was open) because I didn’t look like a scholar to the guard (even though I showed him my research badge, he said it was closed that day–and when I inquired the following day at the library, it turned out that the library actually had been open).  I heard once that they leave a little gate open on the side of the grounds for 30 min every morning so that the Latina/o staff–gardening and custodial workers–don’t have to walk the extra mile around to the main gate.  These workers have been the most friendly to me.  I may be a good historian.  Heck, I may even be great one day.  But I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable at the Spiffy.  Not that the university setting is much better, but somehow it’s different.

You may not be alone while writing at the Spiffy, but writing is a lonely process regardless.  My mom, who just finished her Ph.D. last fall, keeps telling me that I need to embrace my solitude.  “I know you are a social person, but you don’t really need a social life right now.  You just need to write,” she’d said on the phone last week.  A few days later, a mentor-friend told me that writing a dissertation is not a human(izing) process, thereby confirming my barely-suppressed feelings of anxiety about isolation and lack of community.  A lot of academics tend toward the hermit-ish, but I have never been one of them.  And so, I am trying to embrace my solitude.  And I am deciding whether or not to move back to small-midwestern-college-town for what better be my final year of dissertation-writing.  And in the meantime I will keep going to the Spiffy.  And hopefully some days my brown colegas will be there.  And I will keep going to my favorite coffee shops (despite the hipsters).  And I will keep writing.

April 24, 2009


by la rebelde

When I first started grad school, I was one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 22-year-old fresh-out-of-undergrad, annoying first-years. Not much different than the ones I have trouble connecting with now. But I was different than most in that I wasn’t excited to bury my head in books and archives. I’d decided to go to grad school because I thought it could be a way—a way that I was good at—to help make this world a better place. I believed—and still do—that one road to liberation was through learning. History was not simply “an interesting intellectual project,” as many approach it.  Rather, its connections to the present world were/are essential to making history matter—and to imagining a different, better, more just world. When I was teaching, my students challenged me on that point everyday. And while I had a deep investment in making these connections, my graduate training in a field where everyone is disciplined to worry about being “presentist”—especially women, people of color, queer folks, etc. who are more prone to such accusations—made it fairly difficult.

My experience at a small liberal arts school in the late 90s, where there were no grad students, and where struggles for Ethnic Studies—most specifically, for Asian American Studies—was a well-organized student-run project that had been maintained over decades. And it continues now. Because there were no courses, students read on their own, and led classes and discussions amongst each other. The movement for ES was based on students’ visions, which took a connection between community with the academy, along with a critical eye to privileges in their many forms, as its fundamental basis.

So it threw me for a loop the other day, when a colega of mine expressed frustration at not only the presence, but the participation, of undergraduates at a certain ES conference underway as I write this post. Colega felt that undergraduate participation lessened the rigor of her own academic experience at the conference, that panels should be reserved for graduate students and faculty. I argued that undergraduates should always be a central part of the fabric of ethnic studies, that we have much to learn from them as they do from us, that ES should be a place where we challenge these kinds of hierarchies even if we recognize that they are real and powerful.

The conversation left me pissed off and, frankly, surprised. I was surprised, not only because we actually went to the same undergrad institution, with overlapping activist friends, but because the conversation revealed to me that we have a fundamental, somewhat existential, disagreement. After all these years in the elite academic circles, you’d think I would no longer be surprised. You’d think that I would be better able to accept that not everyone comes to it with the same political and personal investments as I do. You’d think that after one of my own institutions’ programs has “reserved” one panel for graduate students to present at its 25th anniversary event, and we’d have to compete for one of four spots on that panel—another incarnation of the same logic that my colega expressed—that I would not be tripped up by the pervasiveness of elitism. I’m surprised by my own surprise, but not surprised by my disappointment. I’m not naïve. But I guess I’m still an idealist, even if a cynical one.

June 19, 2008

amazing gifts.

by la rebelde

It goes without saying, the best thing about traveling for academic purposes is rolling deep—spending time with amigas/os who live far away and reminding yourself why it is you do what you do. On the flip side, if you are a single person who lives alone and is writing a dissertation, the return to solitude can be even more pronounced—in a lonely apartment, the silence deafening. That’s why I watch so much t.v.

The last two weeks were non-stop activity— exciting, relaxing, eye-straining, mundane, frustrating, nerve-wracking, and relieving—in that order.

The bulk of it—7 days straight, in fact—was spent scoring AP exam essays in Louisville. It’s no fun, but I do it for the money—7 days work for 1 month’s rent and utilities is nothing to scoff at. But I don’t believe in AP the way the high school teachers I worked with do. They’re invested because they teach students to pass this test. Those students sometimes end up in my classroom, and oftentimes they are resistant to working on critical thinking skills. “It’s the arrogance of youth,” I’ve been told. “No, it’s not,” I’ve responded. “It’s the arrogance of privilege.” Kids who take AP classes aren’t any smarter than those who don’t. For the most part, they just went to wealthy high schools with mostly white student bodies. But I digress. Seven days spent in Louisville allowed me to refresh my knowledge of Jacksonian America and the Vietnam War. It gave me time with 2 amigas/colegas who I greatly respect. And it forced me to take some time away from my impending dissertation. I took this photo on an evening walk along the Ohio River—the historian in me couldn’t help but think of the many folks who crossed this border-river to “freedom” in the North, sort of like the Río Grande/Bravo.

Lucky for me, I spent a few days with a close amiga in Lexington before heading to Louisville. Although we speak often on the phone, it was somehow different to be in her space, to see where she goes everyday, to meet the people she spends time with. Amiga has been subletting a fabulous house from her friend who is studying away. There’s something about the character of those southern houses surrounded by greenery and flowers–the architecture, the porches, the history. It was a quaint neighborhood, where I imagine many faculty live—definitely not working-class and mostly white (I know you’re surprised about that one). We had a great time, just staying up late talking.

After Louisville, I traveled directly to the Berks conference on the History of Women. It was the first time I presented at a major conference. My amigas/colegas and I stayed with a profe who was generous enough to share his home. He and two Chicana scholars attended our panel. I looked at them the entire time I was speaking and for good reason. During the Q + A, a white man asked a question—or rather, made a comment—about my work, suggesting that I hadn’t used primary documents, that I’d relied on the work of long-established historians. This kind of comment is a straight up diss for historians. He clearly hadn’t paid attention to my talk. I responded by discussing my sources and turning the discussion more toward the difficulty of finding sources about working-class women of color—there just aren’t many out there, especially ones that were created a hundred years ago. One profe responded to his question also by challenging his assumptions. Fortunately other folks asked good questions. I was grateful that the brown folks in the audience had come to support us, and could be angry for me, for us, when I was too nervous, anxious and tired to be angry for myself.

This is how I spent the first two weeks of June. Everyday was spent with good friends—four in total. The nourishment of time spent with amigas, mentors and community was good for my soul. They are amazing gifts. And I often wish I could put all of my amigas/os, who are scattered around the globe now, in my pocket to carry with me all the time.

June 16, 2008


by la rebelde

In order, left to right:
Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

I’ve been traveling again—on business…again. Except for those few days I spent with a close amiga in Lexington, I’ve been scoring AP exams and presenting at the big Women’s History conference—the one that only happens every 3 years. All of this has been exhausting and nourishing at the same time. Exhausting because I read hand written essays all day for seven days straight before flying to the conference. And nourishing because I spent the last two weeks surrounded by good friends, mentors and colleagues.


At the end of a long day of conferencing yesterday, I attended a panel in which the very last speaker ended her discussion with an anecdote about Rosa Parks. She mentioned how Parks had often been asked if she knew Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman (at least I think she said it was Tubman, but it was definitely someone of that time period—it was a long day!). The story stuck with me for the rest of the day. In fact, when she said it, I couldn’t hold back from expressing audible horror at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. It’s as if abolition work and civil rights era work had been conflated in time and purpose. But I thought, maybe as a historian, I had been taking for granted the contextual specificity that has been drilled into me.

And then I remembered—this is also a common problem for high school students whose exam essays I’ve read over the last few years. They constantly collapse time when thinking about the histories of Blacks in the U.S. Some make statements that say something like “the Civil Rights movement freed the slaves,” which is, of course, wrong. I’m not saying that abolition and civil rights are not related struggles—of course they are. My concern is more that the contextual differences are not taken as seriously as they are for white history or the more traditional historical narratives that get reproduced all the time. Students don’t usually conflate the U.S. Civil War with the Vietnam War or Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Nixon—even though there are similar parallels involving imperialism and conquest (not to mention masculinity!). When the story is more explicitly about peoples of color, context seems to fall by the wayside more often. Histories of “oppression” are then relegated to a bygone era so as to relieve present-day guilt about atrocities past and present—even if present-day people are simultaneously associated with historical actors.


The Parks story also reminded me of an interaction I had a few weeks ago with a friend of an amiga. After we were introduced, we made polite conversation. He asked about my dissertation. I gave my usual brief description. As a Chicano who grew up in LA and who had taken Chicano Studies courses, he knew the general area my research deals with and wanted to know more. He asked me something about the transcontinental railroad—people always ask about it when I mention I study Chinese Americans, even though it’s no longer a part of my study. It’s as if Chinese Americans and transcontinental railroad are inseparable in their present-day racial imaginaries. A little bit later, we all piled in the car and headed out to grab a drink. On the way, we stopped at a nearby 7-11 because someone needed to hit up the ATM. As the rest of us waited in the car, this same dude noticed a group of teenage Asian boys hanging out nearby. “Hey! There’s a bunch of Chinese guys over there. You should interview them and ask them about the transcontinental railroad for your research. They’re all right there!”

Say what?! The TC-RR was completed almost 150 years ago! And, I don’t study the TC-RR, which I had made clear in our earlier conversation. And, those kids might not have even been Chinese. I could go on and on, but you get the point. I didn’t say anything—mostly because I was about to be stuck with this dude for the next few hours. It occurred to me—he may not have known I am Chinese (not that it should even matter). Mexicans in LA sometimes talk smack about Chinese people to me, not knowing I’m Chinese too. I’ve decided that it’s not worth explaining my identities unless I’m actually invested in the person or the conversation. This time I didn’t care. He may have been joking, but it was definitely not funny. And I knew it was about to be a long night.


More about the nourishing parts of my travels to come later…

March 12, 2008

"Native Feminism Without Apology!"

by la rebelde

Please read the press release below and think about signing this online petition in support of Andrea Smith’s tenure case at the University of Michigan. More updated info can be found here.

Native Feminism Without Apology!
February 25, 2008

Statement of University of Michigan Students and Faculty in Support of Andrea Smith’s Tenure Case


On February 22nd, 2008, University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) issued a negative tenure recommendation for Assistant Professor Andrea Lee Smith. Jointly appointed in the Program in American Culture and the Department of Women’s Studies, Dr. Smith’s body of scholarship exemplifies scholarly excellence with widely circulated articles in peer-reviewed journals and numerous books in both university and independent presses including Native Americans and the Christian Right published this year by Duke University Press. Dr. Smith is one of the greatest indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time. A nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Smith has an outstanding academic and community record of service that is internationally and nationally recognized. She is a dedicated professor and mentor and she is an integral member of the University of Michigan (UM) intellectual community. Her reputation and pedagogical practices draw undergraduate and graduate students from all over campus and the nation.

Dr. Smith received the news about her tenure case while participating in the United States’ hearings before the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Ironically, during those very same hearings, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that restricted affirmative action policies at UM specifically were cited as violations of international law. At the same time, there is an undeniable link between the Department of Women’s Studies and LSA’s current tenure recommendations and the long history of institutional restrictions against faculty of color. In 2008, students of color are coming together to protest the way UM’s administration has fostered an environment wherein faculty of color are few and far between, Ethnic Studies course offerings have little financial and institutional support, and student services for students of color are decreasing each year.

To Support Professor Andrea Smith: The Provost must hear our responses! Write letters in support of Andrea Smith’s tenure case. Address email letters to ALL of the following:

Teresa Sullivan, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, LSA,
Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, LSA,
Mary Sue Coleman, President,

March 6, 2008

on bizcochitos, tomato soup and knowledge-making.

by la rebelde

I was watching an “Ace of Cakes” marathon on the Food Network the other day. In case you haven’t seen the show, Charm City Cakes is a bakery in Baltimore where artist-bakers design these amazing cakes in 3D form, like airplanes and those giant balloons that rich kids like to bounce in at their birthday parties. Very cool stuff—the cakes, not the bouncing, although that might be fun.

They aired the one where they make a cake for a zoo event in the shape of a standing elephant, complete with wrinkly skin. Then, as if it couldn’t get any better, they made one of an old school NYC subway train—those metallic rounded cars, complete with full-on, 6-foot tall graffiti. These cakes seem totally extravagant and expensive and it makes me wonder who the heck actually pays for such fancy cakes for events like a 5-year-old’s birthday party. But I really like watching them construct the sculptures and paint the designs.


Yesterday I spent over six hours at this great Chicano coffeeshop just writing—writing like the wind. It’s funny how a super-productive day can feel really good, even if you leave feeling like you’ll need a million more hours just to say what you need to say. And today I changed my primary focus of the chapter…again for the 4th time in 3 weeks. I guess that’s the nature of a dissertation. And hopefully it will be the better for it.

I only wonder when the stress will subside.


Just this weekend, I was talking with a grad school amiga about how often there are moments when I think, I could be so much happier doing something else—something other than academia. And yet, I keep on, despite the personal and political contradictions that plague my existence as an intellectual and as someone committed to the liberatory possibilities of community-building. She has similar experiences–that’s why she’s my girl.

My struggle lately—or perhaps all along—has been the issue of owning knowledge (which I wrote about here before). I am haunted by the constant need to demonstrate that I, as a historian, am “doing something new” even though one could argue that nothing really is “new” because all studies build on work and ideas that have come before theirs. (And by work and ideas, I mean the broadest senses in which we might think about theorizing knowledge-making and the labor needed to make that happen, inside or outside the boundaries of the academy.)

The haunting spirals into frustration when people who work outside my subfield (gender and Asian American history, for example) who find it necessary to tell me that my topic has “been done” by citing the three texts they’ve read about gender and the three they’ve read about Asian Am history. (Nevermind that I am looking at those subfields together along with other subfields too. And of course, there actually are scholars who have come before me who have looked at those subfields together. Gasp!) This is not the first time that’s happened–when well-meaning folks suggest that I need to “position” (read defend) myself against others who have studied similar themes so as to prove that my entire dissertation does not simply repeat their narratives–and it won’t be the last. Of course, there are expectations that one be clear about one’s interventions in “the field,” that one must write in conversation with key texts. That’s really important, especially for brown/women academics because we always seem to have to defend our existence in the academic world. My frustration arises from what happens along the fissure between asking how you understand your study in relation to a specific theory/argument/story, and the somewhat accusatory, implied question of whether you have read key books in your own field. Perhaps this is a question about colonialism, respect, community and pedagogy (something I learned a great deal about from my compañeras/os in tejas).

But this is not about those people—who actually are trying to help and who gave me some great feedback. It is about the culture of knowledge production in the academy/field that fundamentally reproduces false notions of objectivity despite all the work folks have done to show how knowledge-making is shaped by perspective, that it is socially constructed, colonialist and all that jazz—a culture that encourages people to be competitive and selfish. When it gets to that, it’s not about learning or sharing–it’s about showing off and one-upping everyone else. That’s why I left grad school back in 2000, thinking I would probably never return and hoping I would never be one of those scholars who forgot to learn.

I could go on and on.


My point here is that, even on the good days of writing or researching or teaching—the really exciting days—I still constantly consider stopping this academic thing and becoming an artist-baker-coffeeshop-bookstore-running person instead. I could make cinnamon rolls, pan dulce, bizcochitos, sopapillas, pozole and a really good tomato soup. I could stock books, magazines and artwork that tell our stories. Hopefully people I love, even if I don’t know them, would feel comfortable spending time there. That way, at least I could participate in the creation of a space in which community and learning comes first, rather than owning knowledge. And maybe then the idealist in me won’t be smudged away by cynicism and frustration.

February 25, 2008

phone calls from my mama.

by la rebelde

When I saw that it was my mama on the caller ID the other day, I panicked a little. She doesn’t usually call me. I always call her. It’s been this way since I finished college, as if I had officially become an adult and no longer needed to hear from my mother. We’ve talked about it—several times—and the situation remains the same. I call her.

So when I answered the call I was worried that something had happened. But she just needed someone to talk to. My mama lives in a small college town in the middle of the Appalachians. She’s a fairly reserved person and I often worry that she doesn’t have a community over there. But she makes herself busy—busier than anyone I know—with a 40+ hour a week job where her expertise is underappreciated, teaching an adjunct course practically for free, running a support program for patients in her specialty, doing research and writing a dissertation.

See, several years before I was born, my mama was a grad student. Committed to clinical work in underserved communities, she wanted her research to reflect communities that confronted nutrition-related diseases like diabetes. When her advisor left for another school and dropped her, despite the fact that she had already written the majority of her dissertation, she was left with a new advisor who didn’t consider her research topic a worthy one. She left the program and my parents moved to Burque. She taught adjunct classes for a while. I was born, then Manito, and she stopped working to spend time raising us. Then my other Manito was born.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that she went back to work. A few years later she began taking graduate courses because they were free for university employees—one class per semester. And she decided to go back for a PhD. I, of course, think this is amazing.

Now, she’s finished up her research and is writing, writing, writing. And as we were speaking on the phone the other day, I realized that there are so many things I take for granted about my professionalization—or maybe more accurately, my assimilation into academic culture—and the fact that I don’t have children or a job (I’ve been funded through teaching and fellowships). My mama has always worked full-time while in the program. She’s never been a TA so she has never really spent time in her department. And because of that, she didn’t know about little things that are common knowledge for my grad school colegas (such as how grad students can use departmental letterhead for professional purposes, for example). She doesn’t have a support system like I do (even if mine is scattered across the country) because she doesn’t feel she has anything in common with the folks in her cohort. She is in her late 50s, while most of them were under 25 when they began the program and have already graduated because they don’t have full-time jobs outside of the grad school thing. In many ways, this degree will serve a different purpose for her than it will for me. She already has a career and is well-known in the field of nutrition. Her PhD will be in another field and she thinks of it as supplementary to her expertise—the clinical work she already does. My hope is that it will land her a job she enjoys in a location that will make her happy.

In recent years, my role has been to support my mama in her grad school- and work-related issues by listening and talking through issues she’s had with her committee. But my support is limited because we live so far apart and work in different disciplines. When she asks me to take a look at her data sets, I have little idea of what I’m looking at. I’m fortunate that she understands what I’m working on, that she knows the basic ins and outs of the process. But I sometimes wonder how often she doesn’t ask me for support when she needs it…and how often she’s asked and I haven’t been able to help.