“A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School” by Kathryn Allan

From Kathryn Allan’s post, A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School:

I feel that I exist in the nebulous space between the binary poles of abled and disabled. . . . While I suffer from a chronic pain condition that is at times disabling, I do not identify myself as a person with a disability. In all visible and general day-to-day aspects, I am able-bodied.

My illness made the distinction between a friend and a colleague crystal clear. . . . I went from feeling that I was an essential working member of an educational and research institution, to an easily replaced cog in the machine. . . .

The experience of being ill transformed me as an academic. I looked at the thesis project I had strategically designed for my future employment in academe and scrapped it. I started researching feminist science fiction and theories of the vulnerable body. I changed supervisors. I refused to renew the lost “friendships,” and instead strengthened the relationships that had seen me through my missing year and sought out new alliances. I spoke loudly about my dissatisfaction with graduate education. I refused to publish. I pursued career building opportunities outside of my department. I still participated in the academic community (if only to find avenues to voice my dissent and improve conditions), but I no longer celebrated my role in it. . . .

I only made it through that missing year and the difficult ones that followed because of a small handful of people (those of whom I have thanked and will continue to thank). Completing the PhD while suffering with chronic pain and living at the poverty line was not easy. I’m still so angry about it all. Raging, in fact. My anger is directed at all the tenured faculty who risk nothing to change the system that hurts the grad students with whom they work side by side; at my peers, who landed large funding packages and thought themselves better academics for it; at the university, who keeps bringing in naïve and willing graduate students without arming them with marketable skills; and finally, I’m angry at myself for … I’m not even sure what exactly because the hurt and pain and righteous indignation run so deep.


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