Toxic Productivity in Academia and How to Overcome It

Expecting ourselves and others to continue working as normal – and sometimes even harder than normal – is not only unrealistic, it’s unsustainable. It’s downright cruel. It’s the definition of toxic productivity.

Who is the work you’re doing for? 

Is the work you’re doing (or that you’re asking others to do) really so important that it’s worth sacrificing your mental health and overall wellbeing? (Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka would say no, it isn’t.)

Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics
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Yes, Classics is Toxic (Reprise)

It’s been a little over six months since I published “Yes, Classics is Toxic”, and it seemed only apt that I revisit it now. Somehow, we seem to be in the same place today that we were in December. I wish I could say I was surprised. 

Kerry Washington Scandal GIF by ABC Network - Find & Share on GIPHY

Two things come to mind as I sit and think about the current #ClassicsTwitter fiasco: on the one hand, Classics remains toxic. On the other hand, the role of respectability politics in that toxicity.

First, a note on respectability.

According to Wikipedia, respectability politics is made up of three main facets:

  1. Reinforcing a hierarchy to contrast a respectable individual against a shameful other
  2. Encouraging people to defy stereotypes attributed to different aspects of their identity in attempts to present one’s self as respectable
  3. Tailoring one’s behavior to better comply with white, middle-class cultural norms, and consequently reinforce the status quo

In essence, respectability politics concerns who is deserving of respect and what it means to be respectful in particular contexts and within particular groups. Obviously, in this case that context is academia.

The term is most often used in discussions of what one should or shouldn’t wear in ‘professional’ settings – a topic that recently blew up on Twitter. However, this is not my primary concern here. Instead, I want to address power relationships more broadly.

Let’s get more specific and break down this definition a little further.

Reinforcing a hierarchy to contrast a respectable individual against a shameful other

This is manifest in academia in at least four ways, all of which are based in one’s personal ideologies. This can be summed up in the following way: that white, male, straight, and nondisabled individuals are more deserving of respect than those who are not. 

In addition to these things, we must also include the power imbalance inherent in the professor-student dichotomy.

It has been demonstrated in the last few months (at least) that Mary Beard adheres to this particular ideology in at least three of the five ways listed above. She regularly uses her position (senior academic, public scholar) and her massive following on social media (nearly 300k) to harm those over whom she believes she has power. 

In the latest instances, she has intentionally quote-tweeted a trans student and a student of color, inciting a deluge of harassment that ranges from absurd to downright nasty.

That this has happened more than once and that she has actively sought out and exposed those (with much smaller followings, and who she herself usually does not follow) who criticize her makes it impossible for her to plead innocence or ignorance. 

She has knowingly caused harm to precarious and historically excluded groups in our discipline. 

She has knowingly contributed to the toxicity of the discipline which she herself has tried to erase.

In her ‘woe is me’ defense – which she has also used on multiple occasions – she flips the script and makes those who criticize her out to be the ‘bad’ ones. Often they are shamed by her followers for their lack of respect – whether this is by tone-policing or by simply chastising them for not showing deference to a scholar of her caliber.

This shouldn’t have to be said (again – I can’t remember who said it first) but being a prolific scholar does not give you a free pass to be a racist or a transphobe. Sorry.

Encouraging people to defy stereotypes attributed to different aspects of their identity in attempt to present one’s self as respectable

For BIPOC studying the ancient world, making it in the discipline is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s an accomplishment. You’ve done what few others have done before you. You are contributing to changing the appearance of the field, which will in the long run have effects on how many more BIPOC will be attracted to it in the future.

On the other hand, it’s a loss. It’s not a question of whether or not you will lose something of yourself in the process, but when and how much. 

How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to ‘make it’ in this field which is growing more toxic by the day? How much are you willing to give in order to help make it better?

For many of us, openly criticizing problematic, senior members of the field is a huge risk. And, as recent events have shown, apparently even subtweeting them is dangerous. For some it’s a risk worth taking, but for others, it just isn’t.

It might seem heroic for white allies to speak on behalf of their BIPOC colleagues, but this can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and hierarchies in the field. It’s true that some people will only listen to the complaints of those who look like them, but what that does is contribute to the idea that the only legitimate critiques come from white (male, tenured, etc) individuals.

Rather than trying to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’ in every instance, step aside and give BIPOC the mic. Insist that they should be listened to and amplify their stories. Legitimize their narratives and opinions, rather than contribute to the idea that they are too ‘emotional’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘passionate’ to be taken seriously. 

Tailoring one’s behavior to better comply with white, middle-class cultural norms, and consequently reinforce the status quo

What the long history of tone policing and respectability politics more broadly in academia has done is tried (and often succeeded) in putting individuals from historically excluded groups ‘in their place’ (in the hierarchy).

We have to learn to ‘fit in’ in order to survive in a field built on white cultural norms and ideals, and often this means playing nice and not rocking the boat, even at the expense of our own safety and mental health. 

When we do have the courage to voice our opinions – well, as we have seen, it doesn’t always end well.

God forbid someone lodge a valid criticism of another scholar in our field. Criticism and civility are not mutually exclusive. 

I used to think that this was the only way anything in this field would change. Forcing people to confront their problematic assumptions and behaviors, I thought, would set them on a path toward changing their tune and that this would have a domino effect.

But Mary Beard and her supporters have really shown that there are enormous roadblocks in this path. The most glaring one is a lack of accountability and consequences. 

How many instances of harm is it going to take for people like her to finally be deplatformed?

Clearly, more gentle routes – like having an honest conversation about those harms – do not work for everyone. This is especially true when it comes to folks who refuse to see what they are doing for what it really is, and instead take to playing the victim time and time again.

We aren’t kids on a playground. Stop accusing precarious ECRs of bullying you when the facts are all there. It’s despicable, and frankly it’s getting old. 

5 Things We Need to Sacrifice in Classical Studies

I recently saw a Tweet that emphasized the true purpose of anti-racism work: repair, restoration, and sacrifice where necessary. 

The third element – sacrifice – particularly struck me, especially as I was trying to think of what this week’s blog post would be about. It put the ongoing debates about the vitality of the field of Classics into a new perspective.

Those who have argued for ‘burning it all down’ know what it would mean to make sacrifices for the betterment of the discipline; those who oppose and criticize the idea of reforming Classics are simply afraid of a little discomfort. They would rather see a discipline rife with problems continue to thrive than sacrifice some things in order to at least begin to solve those problems. 

This makes me think of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s concept of ‘fear of a black planet’ — the fear that by giving black people any power at all, the cultural hierarchy would be inverted and white people would be completely powerless and oppressed. (A similar concern was raised about the term ‘intersectionality‘. Do I sense a theme?)

What would the equivalent be for Classics? Fear of a BIPOC discipline?

I’d like to say that this is only characteristic of the old, white, tenured contingency of the discipline, but that just isn’t the case. We all need to make sacrifices, some much bigger than others, if we want to make progress in making Classics an anti-racist discipline.

Books that are staples in the field of Classical Studies
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3 Tips for More Anti-Racist Mentorship

This morning I participated in a plenary session for a workshop on anti-racist and decolonial curricula in archaeology hosted by the Columbia Center for Archaeology. In my talk, I framed the topic of anti-racist curricula in terms of mentorship, and the ways in which good mentorship could help alleviate the pressures placed on first-gen, marginalized, and underrepresented students in Classical Studies and archaeology by the hidden curriculum.

The Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum is a set of skills or norms that individuals are expected to know, particularly in academia, without being formally taught them

On this blog, I have taken a particular interest in the hidden curriculum, and have made several blog posts illuminating different aspects of it.

Skills and norms which are part of the hidden curriculum include:

  • Preparing for fieldwork
  • Writing a dissertation (prospectus, chapter)
  • How and when to apply for funding
  • Writing conference abstracts and papers
  • What to wear and how to act when attending a conference
  • How to interview for a (usually academic) job

These range from seemingly simple skills to more complex ones. However, our assumptions about individuals’ knowledge of these skills and norms disproportionately harm students from marginalized backgrounds. These students feel they must put in twice the work to keep up with their peers.

Here are some ways that we can better support students throughout their academic careers.

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Why I’m Not Traveling Abroad This Summer

It should be unsurprising to anyone who knows me when I say that fieldwork plays a big role in my success as an academic. This is because I’m an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Greece. My fieldwork requires me to travel abroad for several weeks to months at a time each year, usually in the summer. 

I am very sad that I haven’t gone to Greece in nearly two years. The reluctance of some of my colleagues to cancel field projects and research trips in light of the ever-changing COVID situation has also been surprising.

I get it, I do. The last year was a total setback for many archaeological projects, including my own. My dissertation has taken a new path thanks to the fact that I couldn’t do fieldwork last summer, despite my best laid plans. 

But is getting that dissertation done or that excavation going more important than the lives of the people who live in your destination country?

The answer should be simple: no, it’s not.

The challenges to admitting this are many. It’s no secret that many programs and departments have grappled with how to deal with funding and time to degree for those of us whose research got derailed by the pandemic. 

Some places, such as at Michigan, have found ways to support students needing extra time to finish, which lessens the burden on students scrambling to secure support elsewhere. However, I know this isn’t the case everywhere.

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Writing Personal Statements (Hidden Curriculum Series #3)

The hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. In keeping with the applications theme, this new addition to the series is on the personal statement. 

Thanks to everyone on Instagram who helped with the decision!

A note on the personal statement

This post is about writing personal statements for funding applications, not grad school applications. I realize that there also exist “statements of purpose,” which are sometimes asked for in addition to a personal statement.

https://www.greedge.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/1-1.png
Image credit: GREedge (greedge.com)

In the case of funding applications, “personal statement” and “statement of purpose” are often used interchangeably. 

Take for example these two funding opportunities from my university:

#1: The statement of purpose must be single-spaced, 12pt font, and three pages maximum including any bibliography, citations, project timetable, graphics, etc. These should be written in language for non-specialists, should describe the proposed research project and discuss its rationale, objectives, design, timetable, feasibility, and methodology, as well as the projected benefits of this trip. If the applicant will be working with an established research project, a description of the organization and the activities in which he/she will be engaged must be included. Applicants should also discuss any language skills needed to conduct the proposed research.

#2: Students’ personal statement…should address the importance of the student’s work in the beginning two or three sentences. The statement should include the theoretical framework of the dissertation, its specific aims, methodologies (how the student is conducting the research), originality, and the significance and contribution of the project to the field…The statement should be written with an interdisciplinary faculty review panel in mind; i.e., reviewers will NOT necessarily be familiar with the technical vocabulary of a specific field.

The purposes of the funding opportunities are slightly different. One specifically supports international research and the other supports work on the dissertation (writing and/or research) more broadly, with an eye toward completion. 

However, the requirements for the statements are roughly the same. 

If you’re unsure of what to include in a statement, funding institutions usually spell out what sort of information they’re looking for in a personal statement/statement of purpose.

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Ways to Support the AAPI Community

This morning on Instagram I shared a message of solidarity with the AAPI community on this day and all days, and I condemned the increasing instances of violence that they have had to endure since the pandemic began. In particular, my heart goes out to all of my AAPI friends and colleagues in light of the racist, misogynistic, and sexist murder of 6 Asian women in Atlanta

Since sharing this post, I have come across innumerable resources, mutual aid funds, and action points that I thought might be worth collecting in a single place. 

As in the case of anti-Black racism, raising awareness shouldn’t be the only thing that you do in response to anti-Asian violence fueled not only by racism, but also by misogyny and sexism. It’s only the first step. Our friends and colleagues need us to stand with them and show up for them. 

Here are some ways you can do this.

Resources to share with your AAPI friends and colleagues:

Mental Wellness Resources for AAPI (Asian American Journalists Association)

A collection of mental health resources, ways to donate and volunteer, organizations to support, petitions to sign, books to read, and more:

Resources for unlearning your anti-Asian biases and prejudices:

Check out the amazing work that the Asian and Asian-American Classical Caucus of the Society for Classical Studies is doing (and consider donating!)

Black and Asian-American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List

Resources and general information about the ongoing anti-Asian hate crimes (from May 2020)

Up-to-date (as of 3/16/2021) reports on anti-AAPI hate (from Stop AAPI Hate)

List of things you can do (in addition to donating) to support the AAPI community (from Stop AAPI Hate)

Bystander Intervention Training to Stop Anti-Asian/American and Xenophobic Harassment (Free) (Hollaback! & AAJC) 

Mutual aid funds, organizations, and businesses to donate to:

Where to Donate to Help Asian Communities (currently includes 60+ ways to do so)

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta (also includes ways to volunteer and get involved in protecting AAPI voting rights in Georgia)

Support Georgia’s Asian American Community (donations go towards helping the victims and their families impacted by the violent acts that occurred on March 16, 2021; AAAJ-Atlanta)

Red Canary Song (a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers, organizing transnationally)

AAPI Mutual Aid Organizations by State

Support the AAPI Community Fund (GoFundMe)

The Hate Is A Virus commUNITY Action Fund 

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but I hope it can be a place to start for those who want to actively support our AAPI friends, colleagues, and communities.

Burnout is Different for BIPOC

I bet we’ve all heard at least once in the past year that “your worth isn’t tied to your productivity.” The idea is that you shouldn’t let your work consume you to the point of burnout, which negatively affects all aspects of your health. 

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.

It’s easy to say that “your worth isn’t tied to your productivity,” but much, much harder to put that idea into practice

This is especially true when we’re inundated daily with posts on social media that make us feel like we aren’t doing enough, even when we feel good about the (quality and quantity of) work we’re doing.

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Doing Anti-Racism Work the SMART Way

As I mentioned earlier this week on Instagram, despite the fact that spring is (finally!) right around the corner, we continue to be deeply entangled with our screens – from working from home, to doom-scrolling on social media, to organizing and attending virtual events as part of our anti-racism work. 

Spring is just around the corner

While so many of us have been keeping up the momentum for nearly a year, there are others who no longer have the bandwidth to continue actively being allies for their BIPOC friends and colleagues.

I get it. This work is exhausting; it takes a lot out of you. But the work is not done just because you are.

So, how might we begin our anti-racism work anew and combat the fatigue – Zoom fatigue, decision fatigue, or otherwise?

The solution: re-framing our approach to anti-racism work using a SMART goal setting framework. 

This approach has already helped me make progress on my dissertation, so why shouldn’t it be useful for making our anti-racism work more realistic and easily attainable?

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Social media: more harm than good?

Despite my best efforts, I can’t avoid the Classics discourse. Several reactions to the recent email debacle gave me pause last night. It made me think: it’s time for some reflection, and some hard truths. It’s time for us to wake up, and act.

A few weeks ago, following a talk at the AIA-SCS annual meeting wherein an instructor talked about asking their students to justify slavery, I invited everyone to consider whether they were doing harm in their classrooms. Today, I want us to go further than that.

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