Sections Vulnerability and The Body
Occupied Kumeyaay Land (San Diego, CA, USA)

Units of Care in Precarious Times

Stories from a pair of chronically ill graduate students

Samantha Streuli & C.J. Valasek


Samantha: For the past year, I have been sick. While I have a substantial amount of experience with being sick, this illness is new and particularly disruptive. Although I have support from my advisor, my illness has impacted my progress in my graduate degree because I lack other institutional support such as funding which would allow me to reduce my teaching load. Being sick has also resulted in the first truly negative teaching reviews I have ever received; students commented on my lack of availability and the fact that I seemed like I “didn’t care.” I have decided to take a leave of absence from my graduate program, and I am not certain if I will return. I have found a full-time job that pays double what I have been paid as a graduate student, and I find it exciting to be able to be assigned daily tasks and to immediately see the fruits of my labor - unlike academia, where I have toiled for years and seen no tangible outcomes. While there are benefits to working this new job, my commute is exhausting, my work is not as fulfilling or flexible as I would like, and I miss working with the community to whom I have made meaningful commitments. I also feel considerable guilt for the fact that my partner must pick up so much of the slack in terms of domestic labor because I am simply too exhausted. While I am fortunate to have a partner who supports my decisions whether I stay in academia or leave permanently, I also worry that my own precarious position puts an undue emotional burden on him, as he is also a disabled and precarious scholar.

The above vignette illustrates our experiences as working-class, disabled, precarious graduate students who form a unit of care through our partnership with one another. By “unit of care,” we mean a durable network in which care is provided reciprocally (though not always equally) between communities, individuals, and institutions. Through describing our own unit of care as a couple-form attempting to exist outside of patriarchal spaces, we provide our example of the university as a failing unit of care.* Not only does the university fail to support disabled scholars, but it also acts as a structure that is disabling due to its overall lack of institutional and financial support for scholars, its cultural glorification of suffering in the name of academic productivity, and its valorization of individual achievement at the expense of community solidarity.

* We use care here in a political sense that is connected to concerns of mutual aid and development rather than as institutional treatment. On the politics of care see Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming of Disability Justice (2018).

Samantha’s Story

In many ways, I am currently the least precarious that I have ever been. I have a stable income and a satisfying homelife. I own a car and have a good credit score. These are all relatively recent developments in my life. As a teenager, my disability and the unstable nature of my home life combined to result in my regular truancy from school. When my single father was arrested, I found myself homeless for several months, drifting between the couches of different friends as I worked to hold down my part-time job at a thrift store. I distinctly remember knowing I wanted to go to college, and also being acutely aware that people like me did not often go to college. I had no savings to speak of, no parental safety net, no stable home. So, I worked various gigs in the service industry - a pawn shop, a shoe store, a call center - until I finally turned twenty-four and was considered independent for financial aid purposes. I enthusiastically headed to community college, where I continued to work multiple jobs as I studied. Unlike my academic performance in high school, I excelled at community college. I was encouraged to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and then a PhD.

Despite my time in academia offering me some degree of stability which my life previously lacked, the PhD has been a taxing experience from the beginning. As a first-generation college student from a low-income family living in a small town in the Midwest, I lacked the cultural capital to adequately blend in with my mostly middle-class peers in the ivory tower in California. I did not know how to dress for a garden party or a conference, when to write a thank you card, or what not to say to my advisor. Although I continued to excel academically, I was floundering socially and still working multiple jobs to stay afloat in the unexpectedly expensive state where I chose to pursue my degree. This has resulted in me falling behind in my studies and feeling woefully inadequate.

During my fourth year of graduate school, I started to become ill. Although I had always had health problems, this felt significantly different. I was regularly crushed under the weight of chronic fatigue and was in constant pain. I had finally found a supportive and loving partner in CJ, but my illness made me doubt myself despite his encouragement. I started a years-long struggle, visiting doctor after doctor in an attempt to determine what was wrong with me, and how I could fix it. While I was previously an avid runner and cyclist, I could no longer keep up with these activities. I found it hard to focus on my work. My chronic illness also exacerbated my disability, meaning I had to see specialists to manage that as well. After several years of struggling, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia. While my disability and chronic illness are currently well managed, they are far from absent, and they shape every interaction that I have with an ableist society and university system.

CJ’s Story

I was accepted into the Sociology Ph.D. program at my current university in Southern California in 2011. After starting my graduate studies (having only taken one Sociology class before being accepted) in the Fall of 2011, I was very uncertain about my future. Growing up in a home with parents (and extended family) who never went to college, I had a particularly negative view of academia, seeing it as a place for relatively uptight elitists. Once I became a student, the way that I was able to get past the elitism was to organize with other working-class folks and undergraduates (via the local Public Education Coalition and student-worker co-ops). I noticed that while the active political work I was doing was energizing, I found myself worn out by my innumerable obligations, including my work for the university. By the beginning of my third year at my current institution, I had a number of new health symptoms that became increasingly debilitating.

It started with extreme fatigue, brain fog, and joint pain. These made me resent academia further since I was expected to continue to be productive while facing the worst health problems of my life. After seeing a dozen specialists who wrote off my symptoms as simply due to stress, I decided to take a year off from my graduate program and I began relying on unemployment and credit cards to sustain myself. During my leave of absence, I was trying not to date, but after meeting Samantha, I knew I wanted to try. Samantha’s love and support gave me a feeling of stability I had not had before. However, I still had numerous health issues, and I could not leave the university due to my high credit card and medical bills that accrued during my leave of absence. While I am currently trying to finish my dissertation, I still face a great deal of uncertainty about my health, as well as the ever-diminishing job market in academia. The future looks bleak for many, though I am thankful for all of the support that I do have. More than ever, I believe that networks of care enact dynamic and enduring means of mutual aid. In these times, it is a matter of survival.

Care within/outside the University

The difficulty in discussing our experiences within the university is the fact that while we have suffered some amount of abuse through our time here, we nonetheless are complicit in its force and power over others. At the same time, the university is not an agent itself as much as a highly durable network of individual roles or habits, which means that people within the university may repurpose the power invested in the university for other ends. For instance, we taught Black Feminist thought and decolonial histories in an archaeology or a media studies class, and we also participated in mutual aid networks with students and people outside the university.

But these economies of care are complicated. While we care for our students, we also get paid for teaching them, and our future employment opportunities are impacted by their often-biased reviews of our teaching abilities. Although one of us (Samantha) works with a community organization and provides care external to the university in this way, she is paid for this work rather than providing community care on a volunteer basis or within the context of mutual aid. While providing care may confer many benefits to the carer, more time taking care of one another means less time being “productive” in order to seem more “worthy” of future employment. Despite these complications and the university’s role in our lives as a unit of care, we believe that the university has proven to do more harm than good to students, staff, communities, and even to our own unit of care. While such harms cannot be easily quantified, they nonetheless reveal themselves in medical costs, stressful deadlines, pay cuts, and threats to job security.*

* We use harm in a general way here to describe suffering, whether the suffering was caused intentionally or not. For a more specific use of the term, and in contrast to abuse and conflict, see adrienne maree brown’s We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice (2020).

Harm in/from the University

The university has many methods for resisting the complaints and mobilizations of students, beginning with the admissions process. One such way is through paying lip service to “diversity and inclusion” in admissions. In many of these cases, students must present themselves in their personal statements as overcoming “personal obstacles” in order to be welcomed into the institution that paints itself as the central vehicle for social mobility. The writing of such personal statements as trauma and/or so-called “poverty porn” showcase the fetishization of poverty and precarity in the academy, even while the academy fails to adequately provide care for poor and otherwise precarious scholars. In addition to showcasing their own trauma for an opportunity to attend university, students are also frequently required to write “diversity statements” which illustrate the ways in which they embody or enable diversity, making diversity a problem to be solved by individual members of the university rather than an issue that concerns the entire university structure. While we are both White scholars, we see the overlap between class oppression, racism, and ableism in these clear ways, having had to write similar statements ourselves.

The narrow access of academia reifies differences between classes, gender, race, and ability and highlights the university’s failure to serve as a unit of care for some scholars/students. This can be seen in differences in pay between most Black women scholars and White men scholars, lack of childcare for parents (especially mothers), cultural capital between rich and poor graduate students, access to research subjects or objects due to disability, and so forth. Speaking as disabled White scholars, we have not been targeted because of race, and only one of us has had to deal with misogyny, but we can talk about particular forms of ableism in the university. Our relationship to the university has been marred by the institutional ways that universities reproduce exclusion by investing in diversity programs, as in “disabilities offices” that make one prove their disability rather than creating a campus dedicated to universal design and access.

It is fair to say that each of us has nearly dropped out of graduate school many times due to ableism. One way that ableism has affected us is through the strict deadlines imposed upon us by departmental and campus administrators. As Eli Meyerhoff and Elsa Noterman have pointed out the university’s “unequal temporal architecture” to help explain the differences in time/labor expectations between say tenured faculty, who can indulge in “slow scholarship,” and the average graduate student who must complete their exams or defense by a certain predetermined date set by the university.* Through these differences in temporal expectations, the university hopes to weed out “unproductive” scholars. After all, it is only those scholars who can bring in large financial grants and publicity who are seen as valuable, whether or not these same scholars steal from, or harass, assault, or otherwise harm, their own students.

* Meyerhoff, Eli, and Elsa Noterman. 2017. “Revolutionary Scholarship by Any Speed Necessary: Slow or Fast But for the End of This World”. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 18 (1), 217-45.

Rather than deal with these inequalities of power themselves, the university has instead created mental health campaigns, or what we might call “entrepreneurial forms of care,” which casts students as masters of their own wellbeing while projecting the university as a healthy unit of care for all students and scholars. Such university wellbeing campaigns, which we have each participated in at some point or another, have included mindfulness programs, writing support via cognitive-behavioral therapy, time management workshops, therapy dog visits, and imposter syndrome forums. Unlike this individualized mental health culture that has swept up much university student health administration, through our experiences, we have come to believe that it is not unconscious doubts that sabotage the individual student (i.e., imposter syndrome), rather there is a vast network of power with connections that are often invisible to us as individuals positioning us in precarious roles.

For the two of us, the provision of mental health services can never make up for the institutional forms of harm that have affected our well-being and have made us feel alienated. From the funding of military research (via DARPA initiatives) to collaborative research with biotechnology firms, to the militarization of campus police, to the rise of the administrative managerial class, universities continue to prioritize control and productivity over any sense of collective well-being. We live through a kind of institutional corruption when we work towards more research for caring for communities, wherein other research at the same university invests in military weaponry. At our particular university, these are ongoing projects of harm that we are complicit in. We so often wonder how do we find firm ground in these precarious times while not also feeling complicit through our own exploited labor power? We can’t answer this individually (after all, how can one or two people change a whole system?), but perhaps there can be new spaces for building units of care.

Relationships and Solidarity through Care

Our individual experiences of disability in academia reveals just how often precarity can be an isolating endeavor, though we must keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be. Precarious scholars may feel uncertain how much they should reveal about themselves (i.e., will I be further marginalized for calling myself disabled?) in such complaints. Although Sara Ahmed initially talked about complaint in the form of sexual assault and harassment, Ahmed has pointed to the promises and perils of complaint, particularly under the neoliberal university.* While universities try to downplay or stamp out complaints through extended bureaucratic procedures and language of warning (i.e., “Are you sure you want to file a complaint?” “There’s nothing we can do for you at this time.” “This will just make your time here harder,” etc.), complaint, in the sense we mean here, nonetheless has the power to construct and mobilize new forces within/against the university including labor unions, movements against university austerity and systemic racism, and expanding units of care.

* Ahmed, Sara. 2019. What’s the Use?: On the Uses of Use. Duke University Press.

While the university may provide certain forms of care for specific people, such as a respite from an abusive home or support toward potential upward mobility, the university can also be harmful, especially for scholars who are already in precarious positions. However, in contributing to new and old relations of care, there is a possibility of reducing and confronting the harm caused by the university. We have experienced this through our own unit of care, as well as through everchanging networks of care with fellow precarious students and workers through collective organizing, mutual aid, teach-ins, etc. We believe that it is necessary to continue to lean into these units of reciprocal care and to rely upon them (as they in turn rely upon us) rather than relying upon the university to function as a durable unit of care. We invite others to do the same. It is only through the provision and receipt of care external to the university that we will be able to imagine and develop meaningful alternatives to the harm of a university built on extraction and exploitation.

In the meantime, we shall embrace one another and our pets together, even while dealing with chronic pain and the threat of our lights being shut off.