When You Present Critical Findings About Your Friend at a Conference…and She’s in the Audience

img_4375Earlier this month I presented a small part of my research at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Montreal, Canada. The conference took place in the wake of the devastating election results.

The timing of the conference couldn’t have been better. I needed to get out of D.C. and not worry about turning on the T.V. just to hear, repetitively, that Trump will be the next president. The election results felt personal, as it did for so many of us who are marginalized in America and for those who happen to give a damn about social justice and have made a life and career out of it.

Despite heading to Montreal with a flurry of gray clouds over me, I looked forward to meeting up with Elodie—my “research subject” and extraordinary friend. But, I felt nervous about giving my presentation, “The Right Kind of Other: Multicultural Imperialism and Flexible Citizenship in Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball.”

I was going to talk about Elodie’s relative privilege over other African competitors, who she beat out for a berth to the 2012 Olympics. I had also prepared 13 PowerPoint slides with large pictures of her…in a bikini! This was not the glorious talk she perhaps imagined I’d give one day when I first asked if I could write about her life. The talk was physically and personally revealing of her.

It wasn’t until the final sentence of my talk that I felt, versus knew, the enormity of what I was actually doing. Holding back tears of gratitude, I read aloud:

“I have to thank Elodie, who has graciously allowed me to put under an academic microscope, her complex and beautiful life. Admitting one’s privilege is exceptionally difficult. I am profoundly impressed and humbled by Elodie’s openness to speak about her systemic privilege. I am thankful for and inspired by her difficult reflections and honesty.”

Elodie was in the audience and she sat there listening to my critical observations of her journey to the Olympics. She flew into Montreal to support me. She gave me permission to write about her and her family’s life. She trusted me to tell her story (the good, bad, and complicated).

I’m overwhelmed by her generosity in sharing her life for my academic career.

For a brief moment during the conference I panicked over the risk I was putting our friendship in. And then Elodie suggested we go get foot reflexology massages, eat Chinese food, and watch a movie at some point that weekend. We hadn’t just hung out, the two of us, since my son was born a year and a half ago.

IMG_4376.JPGAs we walked the streets of Montreal, we talked about our fears, hopes, and dreams, just like we had done growing up in downtown Toronto.

It’s intense, doing a dissertation largely based on one of my best friends’ life. It’s a massive and delicate responsibility. And yet, through this experience I’ve been able to have conversations with Elodie I may not have had otherwise. As an added bonus I’m able to share with her the frustrating, arduous, and exciting process of doing academic work, which so few people outside of academia know or appreciate. This experience has been personally and professionally enriching so far.

With 2016 coming to an end, I’m looking forward to phase two of “dissertating”—travel for research in 2017. I’ll be hitting up archives at the British Library in London, England, the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting archives and Elodie’s family in Mauritius. Elodie plans to join me for parts of these travels, so stay tuned!

The Dissertation Is My Olympics. The Olympics Is My Dissertation

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Thank goodness for the Rio Games. Just when I was falling into a rut with my doctoral work, the Summer Games begun. It’s early to feel burnt out considering I just started the dissertation journey. Perhaps defending my proposal only a few months after giving birth and then moving to the other side of the country have a lot to do with my premature burn out.

A wise auntie of mine told me recently that quitting on my PhD now would be like training hard for a marathon and stopping at mile three. She had me at the sports analogy.

With my auntie’s guidance, I gave myself the much needed permission to take this summer off with the promise to register for fall. In hind sight, I should have taken a break, A REAL BREAK, from school much earlier in the year. Instead, I inefficiently attempted to chip away at my work.

To my surprise, in the past eight months I managed to submit an abstract to the NWSA conference (which got accepted), teach a brand new (new for me) 400-level course, submit an essay to two medical humanities journals, conduct and transcribe a 90-minute interview, read a few books, analyze this FIVB video, and start a resource website for postpartum women. It’s not the most productive amount of work, considering the amount of time passed, but it’s something and I’m happy to have something.

Unfortunately, not giving myself a break—after two significant life transitions—has taken a huge toll on my ability to persevere with the dissertation. It’s work that requires so much delayed gratification and has uncertain professional and economic promises—a tough investment for a new parent. It also doesn’t help that people often find my work too abstract to sustain a genuine conversation, making it hard for friends and family to relate to why I continue down this solitary path that tests even the most resolute among us.

And just when I contemplated throwing in the towel (you like what I did there?) the Rio Games descended upon us in the most unrelenting way. I couldn’t be happier with the bombardment of Olympic news from EVERY SINGLE MEDIA OUTLET. Few people doing their doctoral work are inundated with so much “stuff” related to their research.

For the academic side of me, this Rio Olympics is especially interesting because it’s the first Games in Latin America, and it’s in a country that glorifies multiculturalism, hybridity, and mixed races as part of its national identity. Also, beach volleyball is a huge featured event partly due to its growing popularity around the world especially in regions with significant beach cultures like California and Brazil.

beach-1210567_1920The iconic Copacabana Beach, where the beach volleyball competitions are taking place, seems to be the epicenter of the sexualized representation of Brazilian women and fashion. This makes for fascinating observations on how the sport seamlessly blends into the beach/surf/bikini culture, naturalizing the heterosexiness of the players and drawing in a spectatorship different than those of other sports. (I’m talking about official beach dance entertainers.) Other really interesting things are happening in this Olympics that just scream for academic analysis include: the refugee team, the first American to compete in a hijab, commentary on the women’s Turkish beach volleyball pair competing fully clothed, the near banishment of the entire Russian team (doping related), Gisele Bündchen in the Opening Ceremony, the Opening Ceremony’s performative story of slavery in Brazil, Obama’s commentary on the cultural and political significance of the Games, the commercials celebrating diversity…There’s sooooo much!!

Really though, at the end of the day I’m binge-watching the Games because I’m so totally sucked into the glamor, excitement, and lure of the Olympics. I can discuss the inequalities of sports until the cows come home, but it doesn’t take away from my appreciation and awe these athletes and their mental and physical capabilities.

We don’t see the hours, days, weeks, and years of training that go into performing at such a high level of physical movement. We don’t always see the aches and pains or know about the athletes’ personal sacrifices and obstacles. Despite my critiques of the Games, their clichéd narratives and their unapologetic commercialization, I can’t deny (EVER) the Olympics’ amazing display of physical human accomplishment. I just can’t. Having played competitive sports through college, I only have a tiny glimpse of and resounding appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympian.

As the Rio Games continue, I’ll be glued to the TV and Internet hoping that this global event sparks the motivation I need to keep on keepin’ on with my dissertation. In a similar way these athletes trained for their moment on this global stage, I busted my ass these past several years intensively reading, researching, and writing to show my dissertation committee that I have what it takes. My “training” would be for not, if I stopped now. So let this dissertation be my Olympic debut.

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My Postpartum (Blogging) Hiatus

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The last eight months of my life have been one transition after the other. Here are the most notable highlights:

  • I had a baby! It was a long time coming. Transitioning to parenthood has been intense.
  • Two months postpartum I cleaned up my dissertation proposal, defended it, and became ABD.
  • Two weeks after that, we moved to the D.C.
  • Two months after finding a place and settling in, I’ve been trying to establish a writing routine for my first chapter.
  • Now I’m teaching an online course “Multiculturalism in Hawai‘i,” ironically not while I’m in Hawai‘i.

During these transitions–some more momentous than others–it’s become glaringly clear that life doesn’t stop for grad school…and it shouldn’t. But this brings up issues of privilege again, especially gendered ones.

Grad life isn’t family friendly.

I’ve brought up issues about institutional family support before. This problem is even more pronounced in grad school with no economic protections, job security, benefits, social security, or even moral support for being a parent. To holistically thrive as a grad student, you need to be wealthy enough, ideally young or old enough (outside of childbearing age if you’re a woman), and emotionally tough as nails to endure. (Notice I didn’t even mention, “smart enough.”)

Relatively speaking, I have a lot going for me. My partner supports my PhD endeavors but it definitely places stress on our household finances, and inevitably our relationship. My dissertation committee members (and classmates) are quite supportive of my being a new mom. My committee members were some of the first to know that I was pregnant. They also commiserate about the academic “system” with me. Although tangible changes from their efforts are slow (not their faults), they’re trying, which is morally uplifting.

Despite the privileges that enable my grad school life, having this little human so overwhelmingly dependent on me for his survival exacerbate the aforementioned issues that make PhDing impossible for the vast majority of the population.

For now, I’ll keep forging ahead…

Guest Post: The One-Body Problem

Tenure, She Wrote

by @scidoctress

I hold immense respect for my female friends and colleagues who are struggling to advance their own academic careers alongside a spouse’s. I’ve watched brilliant women find a plethora of creative solutions to the “two-body problem,” as it’s termed, from negotiating spousal hires to commuting great distances to settling for second- or third-choice jobs, sometimes even leaving academia altogether. I have attended countless seminars on work/life balance where the same inevitable questions arise: How do I balance my commitment to my children with my commitment to my research career? How do I juggle my husband’s career demands with my own? How do my academic husband and I strategize to find two professorships in the same university? When someone mentions the two-body problem, a palpable sense of collective panic seems to overtake the room. I can feel the married women around me bristle with the deep-seated fear that the…

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