Please take this not as a smarty pants academic essay or provocative opinion editorial but as one academic with many feelings writing a diary entry. I am aware that there is an expansive repertoire of scholarship and commentary on the issues I talk about below, but want to write myself a personal recount and not a fact sheet. Also, I am writing from a vulnerable spot but am not tethered to being politically correct now. Also, this is going to be long (my wordpress interface informs me that these feels are 2900 words long).
If you have been on this space for some time, you might remember that I used to come here to write and purge my feelings whenever I feel blocked (thank you for reading all the words I usually make in the middle of the night so that I can go to sleep), or want to reflect and make sense of the volatile world of academia. Well, this week I have felt extremely blocked. Specifically, on Wednesday I felt very close to exploding because I had accumulated so many bad feelings from microaggressions.
The thing about microaggressions is that they are a continuous low-humming slow-brewing onslaught, so you can condition yourself to compartmentalise the things and get on with life, or expend energy to call out every instance, or just wait for the thing to accumulate until you burst one day.
Like me on Wednesday when I learnt that a grad student writing on influencers was encouraged by a mentor not to cite me but instead go for more established scholars. I read through their PhD thesis which cites me once, albeit with a wrong publication date and also in a rather shallow and cursory manner. Maybe I am salty, but really I am hurt.
I spent the day in a demoralisingly endless loop of
me: don’t sweat the small things it’s ok let it go just do your thing
also me: but my feelings~
but did not want to allow myself to wallow for long because there are backlog things to tend to, and I felt guilty for having these luxury first world problems. Snarky tweets provide temporal catharsis, and convening with academic friends I trust has always been comforting and a great providence of perspective. But in the spirit of C Wright Mills’ connection between ‘personal troubles and public issues’ (my first degree major was Sociology), I took to paper to pen many of the bad feelings I was carrying and made a wishlist. A wishcrys wishlist.
I wish that grad students would write me with the same respect that they would an older/senior/male academic. Grad students write me all the time on social media, which I do not mind at all. If they are quick queries, I try to respond. If not, I ask that they take it to email. Often, whether or not I reply at all is contingent upon the tonality of their request.
In December I wrote a lengthy thread surmising the types of responses I have received from male postgraduates and junior scholars in recent months:
“I don’t have time to read through your work. Here is some information about my project. Can you tell me which is the best paper of yours to cite?”
“I am researching an area that is related to your expertise. Can you please email me all your publications?”
“My thesis is exactly on your expertise but I already have these prominent American/male/senior scholars on my advisory panel. Can you read my thesis and give me feedback for free?”
“We are organizing an event and have confirmed these white male mentors. We would like you to be our diversity card but we have maxed out our budget. Can you help us at your own expense?”
“Hey I saw someone tweeting your work and you seem cool. Have you been researching your research for long? I have been researching this research for my PhD. I am an expert. We should chat.”
“I am going to submit a journal article on your research expertise but I hope you won’t be my review because you are the expert in this area and will probably be harsh lol but any way can you read my draft and give me feedback before I submit lol emoji emoji lol”
“I saw that you have this successful project/grant and I want to be included. Can you add me in? No? Because you already have your named grant collaborators? Can’t you just add me in now? Aren’t you supposed to be mentoring junior scholars?”
“Hi I am researching your topic and want to pick your brain. Oh why do you want me to email you my specific questions? I don’t really have any. I just wanna chat. Can you give me your phone number or Skype? I really don’t have any fixed questions now. Maybe when we chat I will.”
“Can you read my thesis for free and give me feedback? I am from a prestigious university in the US and this will be very good for your CV.”
“I saw one of your talks on YouTube. I am rushing out a paper so can you send me your transcript and I will just quote you from there?”
The collective entitlement was really astounding. And then my replies and DMs blew up with some men ‘not all men-ing’ me, other men telling me I should appreciate and be grateful that I was even being considered, and still other men telling me to simply ignore the things and move on.
I wish that my presence on social media was not perceived as a ready, willing, and constant availability for use. As much as I genuinely try my best to mentor junior scholars (especially women and those from/of the Global South), I think the tonality and expectation of the request has to be respectful. One time a grad student Instagram DM-ed me in the middle of the night (my time) with an urgent request, and I only responded several hours later. They sent back an upset reply because their assignment was already due.
Just this month a grad student I don’t know personally wrote me a Twitter DM with the opening “hi crys!”. I didn’t immediately take offence, but wrote back to say “Hi. It’s Crystal – we’re not bffs *laugh cry emoji*” and a request that they email me instead with their lengthy request. I was conscientious about activating my expert emoji skills, because I wanted to save face for the student, and also because not all students have been taught courtesy correspondence which is more likely the habitus of the middle class. They didn’t reply, which was fine by me.
Last year, a grad student emailed me to read and comment on their entire thesis on influencers, and in that same initial request email, said that this would be such a big honour for me because I got to read an Ivy League student’s thesis before it was being defended and published, and that this would probably be a valuable addition to my CV and social network. I wrote back and politely declined. They wrote back persuading me to reconsider and namedropped the people on their dissertation committee, whom I will probably want to network with. I did not write back.
And so, I constructed a new ethos on responding to such requests:
grad student: hello i am a grad student (usually from an affluent institution where students have been trained to maximise networking) can you pls read my draft/brainstorm with me on skype/help me with ideation/structure my methodology for me/help me recruit informants, however i cannot put you on my committee/formally acknowledge you because my committee is full/you are too junior/my supervisor has advised against it/i just need help one-time-off, thank you for your help
me: hello grad student thank you for sharing your thesis and ideas, i am sorry to hear that you are in a position where you lack support/etc, here is a list of links to published works and resources, here is a short paragraph of me providing you with some advice and counsel, sorry i cannot assist any further unless we are able to organise a formal supervision relationship, all the best
>> short-term, labour-milking, resource-hoarding
grad student: hello i am a grad student (usually from global south institutions or minority students struggling in global north institutions) and here are my intersectional difficulties, this is the support i am getting at the moment, this is what i am lacking and hope to receive, here is what i know of your expertise and mentorship, would you be willing to mentor me under these specific domains, thank you for your consideration
me: hello grad student thank you for reaching out to me and writing about your situation, i am sorry to hear that you are in a position where you lack support/etc, i appreciate that mentorship is important in academia where many things are opaque to those of us from marginalised backgrounds, i am happy to mentor but let’s first have a chat to see if we are a good fit and if i am able to support you in the ways you need, take care
>> longer-term, relationship-building, tacit knowledge-sharing
I wish my research was not pigeon-holed as merely adding cultural flavour and variety to presumably ‘mainstream’ research. I have read far too many papers that cursorily cite my work in the vein of “Similar research has been done in Singapore/Asia (Abidin YYYY)” and then gone on to replicate the exact same argument I have made and published on.
I am sad when I read rejection letters from reviewers of top journals that say things in the vein of “This research is too narrowly focused on [Asian country or region] and is better suited in [a journal with ‘Asian’ in its title]”.
I am ambivalent when I am advised that my accepted articles should be edited to end with “in [Asian country]” in the title. Sometimes this is well-meaning advice for SEO purposes or because the journal editor thinks it fruitful to highlight the cultural underpinnings, which I appreciate and accept. But there have also been times when it is based on reviewer feedback that my initial title is “misleading” or an attempt to clickbait more readership, because I am trying to “pass off” my study as “larger” than it is.
I am exhausted when I am asked to justify why my sample of informants from [a specific Asian country] is worthy of investigation because it is presumably not “generalisable”. Meanwhile, papers focused on American phenomena but do not indicate so in the title, and that conveniently draw on a sample of college student respondents are proliferate everywhere.
I wish I do not have to be constantly pit against other Asian scholars who work in the same area or bear the burden of representation for entire minority groups. There is not one singular narrative for any of the social science phenomenon that academics are researching and the race to plump up oneself by discrediting others is ugly. Collaboration > Competition, wherever you can.
I have witnessed this one senior academic who routinely hijacks the Q&A sessions of talks by junior scholars who work in their area. It happened to me on a few occasions. The very senior White male scholar (VSWMS) would push back on my findings to say that their also Asian grad student was in the midst of different findings. I would politely respond that we work on different cultural contexts and platforms and genres and phenomena and time periods, but that even if we were studying the exact same thing, we will likely look out for different things dependent on our framing and training. The VSWMS would not take it and used the rest of the Q&A as a springboard to hardsell and promote their grad student’s work, using them as a trump card of sorts, and almost grossly promoting the cult of their own pedigree – “You both study Asia, so I was wondering why your findings were so different from ours” (inside my head I said: “Because Asia is so monolithic there is only one Asia your Asia is correct my Asia is wrong okay sorry”). The chairperson-timekeeper would usually not step in (because, you know, VSWMS). On this occasion, said grad student, with whom I was actually friends and whose work I knew quite well, was not even in attendance.
Another time last year there was some Twitter frenzy when a reporter hijacked a Tweet of another reporter’s new article, to refute their writing and claim that the former had written about “the real history” of the phenomenon. Somewhere along the line, both reporters and academics who work in this area of social media microcelebrities took to various Twitter threads to share thoughts back and forth. They were mostly based in the UK and US, and I was asleep in my timezone. But I woke up to friends and Twitter peoples sending me screengrabs and DMs of subtweets about my work. One scholar said something along the lines of “I wonder why Crystal would say X when my research shows Y?” And then a few White scholars studying predominantly White informants doing things online pondered why an Asian scholar studying predominantly Asian informants doing things online did not report the same findings as they did. I was never formally beeped into the loop. But I saw it and felt it. Most of the Tweets were deleted swiftly.
I wish that my academic achievements were not always viewed under the suspicion of being affirmative action allocations. Two years ago I was asked how I got my job. Thinking that the scholar was asking about procedures, I explained that I saw the job ad and applied and got shortlisted and did an interview and gave references and was offered the job.
Then they asked me how I really got my job. So I explained that in preparing for the application I consulted colleagues who were already hired by that University to learn about their corporate language, and that in preparing for the interview I asked my mentors for guidance (one of my very kind and awesome mentors even okay-ed my outfit for me, because I had never done a job interview before and I do not own corporate clothes. Thank you, K). Then they asked me how I really really got the job.
And then I got the subtext. But then the subtext became just text because they asked me who I knew on the ‘inside’ and who I had spoken to. No one. Up till then I was living and working in a completely different country, and permanently residing in a completely different state. For the record, the person who asked was an acquaintance at a conference. It hurt my feelings.
Similar things happened during other bits of small talk in various places. Being asked how I got my book contract. How I got my federal grant. How I got involved in various events. While it was hurtful each time, more crucially, I began to doubt myself and ask whether my race and culture and skin got me these things. This was some Grade A gaslighting.
But then later on I also came to accept that yes, my race and culture and skin did indeed carry me to these places and these wonderful things because all of these minority microaggressions have honed my skills as an anthropologist and ethnographer and theorist and thinker. And I would likely be a very different kind of person if my personality and brain did not navigate society in this vehicle of a body. So more recently, when I get asked questions in the vein of ‘is it because you are asian’, inside my head I secretly whisper ‘yesssssss’ (in Slytherin Parseltongue style), and renarrativise the whole microaggressive experience into a positive spin for myself, to remember things differently.
I don’t want to carry these bad feelings anymore. I am not even four years out of my PhD, I don’t want to burn out from microaggressions, and I would like to have a long and mentally-healthy career in academia. I wake up everyday and am grateful and happy that this is my job.
I feel a little bit uncool admitting these things. I wish they were snarky tweets and then two minutes later I might move on with my regular scheduling of pusheen gifs and anime food appreciation. I have also been talking about these issues since the start of my PhD, so I would have hoped that these things would not still feel like thorns in my flesh.
But I cannot help that these microaggressions will probably be part of my work experience until I grow more gravitas or become older or more White or more male (joking on the last two – I am totally going to grow up and grow old and be a bad ass Asian woman academic). So I hope that purging all of these bad feelings in this very very long diary entry will help me to move on. It is now Friday evening and tomorrow my person and I are going to the beach after ten weeks of working from home. It is going to be a wonderful day.