“Professionalism” in academia.

Hi, it’s been a while.

I have been on a bit of a social media hiatus – nothing super drastic of course… I  still need a dose of memes every now and then.

But for the sake of my mental health, I have decided to unplug a little. It’s been really good for me actually.

However, something was brought to my attention that I couldn’t let be, especially given where I am personally on my journey to cultivating a better mental health space for myself.

A Twitter acquaintance (@timgill – who if you don’t follow on Twitter already.. you really should.. enough said) tagged me and a few other Albanian academics in an article by Balkan Insight relating to a new viral TicTok challenge called the #ProfaChallenge. The trend is in response to the unwarranted negative feedback that teacher, Lulzim Paci, from the town of Vushtrri, received on social media after he posted several videos of himself dancing valle (a traditional Albanian folk dance).

The criticism ranged from family members to politicians, who called the clips “improper and degenerate acts.”

The criticism sparked Valon Canhasi, the founder of a social media agency based in Prishtina, to make a video reply, where he posted a clip of himself dancing valle. Since the first post by Valon, several Albanians have participated in the challenge, from teachers to politicians to famous actresses and singers.

I am not famous nor am I officially a “professor/teacher.” I am just your regular, friendly, neighborhood Albanian archaeologist. But this story broke my heart a little, maybe because it hit so close to home for issues that I have been trying to deal with myself.

I don’t want this to be a sob story about myself…I am working on my issues; seeing a therapist and taking my meds. Something I highly recommend to everyone but especially my fellow Albanians who are struggling with mental health issues. Taboo as the subject is for us.

My mental health has degraded because of the perceived notions of what is considered “professional” and “successful” in academia. During my first years in school, way back in the days of undergrad, I worked non-stop, barely had a social life, sacrificed my mental, physical and emotional health, sacrificed relationships with those who were close to me, all for the glory of being a successful and “professional” academic. Was it worth it…Um, NO. My anxiety got so bad while trying to finish my master’s at Mississippi State that I started becoming physically ill – I lost 20 pounds in a month.

Still, I never blamed the system or my perceived notion of what it meant to be a successful, professional academic, but myself. I was not working hard enough, I was not smart, well-spoken, dedicated enough. And if I wanted to succeed, I had to cut out all unnecessary silly distractions, like hobbies and naps. Terrible, right? I know better now. Naps are supreme, and I won’t listen to anyone that says otherwise.

What do you think of when you see these two words; Professional academic?

An old British guy with white hair, wearing a tweed suit and thick tortoiseshell glasses? Maybe he has a large mahogany bookcase behind him?

Maybe you see a serious-looking middle-aged white woman, with medium-length straight hair, speckled with some grey. She’s got glasses, of course, maybe cat-eyed, for a little pizazz. She’s wearing a well-ironed button-down shirt with tailored trousers. Deff not wearing heels, though. High heels are not professional, they are for the club. Red lipstick? Also no.

That’s what I imagined when I was younger. These seemingly benign words, “professional academic” are anything but. The images they conjure are the product of very deep, systemic and insidious social phenomena. They are the product of all the “isms” and “ias:” racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, homophobia etc.

I won’t get too deeply into this because there are many more educated and informed people who have explored these phenomena their whole lives. But I will pose a question to you. Ask yourself this, why is the accepted range of behavior for a professional academic (or professional anything, say, a teacher for example) mirror so closely straight, heteronormative, white, male characteristics (largely)?

Why are academics stripped of their humanity? They are serious, they are older, they are aloof, they work hard and are smarter than everyone else. They are diligent, regimented, able-bodied, clear-minded, and sometimes mean, but they are so smart and so much better than the rest of us, so they can be mean. They do not spend time with their families (they don’t have time), have interests outside of academia (as if they would waste their precious time on something as pointless as painting),  be silly or goofy, dress “sexy” (gasp), post bikini pictures (unprofessional), or god forbid, stray away from heteronormative monogamous relationships (double, triple gasp, quelle horror).

I am exaggerating here and being sarcastic (just to be clear). But I hope it gets my point across.

What people do with their time outside of their job is not a reflection of how good or bad they are in their career (obviously, there are exceptions like, for example, running an underground meth lab a la Breaking Bad…We can all agree, this is a no-no). But hobbies, free time, personal lives? Nobody’s business but yours.

As always, you do not have to agree with me. But I hope I made you question some of your assumptions about what it means to be a “professional” anything. So here are some closing thoughts: humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures. We carry multiple intersecting, identities, which layer and overlap and make each one of us uniquely us. One identity does not cancel out the others we carry. And for the love of god, a profession is not an identity. Or if it is important for you, please know that you are more than your job!

So for my Albanian community, our Albanian identity does not preclude us from carrying others. You can be Albanian… and gay (gasp gasp)!! For my academic friends, being an academic does not mean you cannot be human. You can be a “respectable academic” and have a life outside of academia that is diverse and fulfilling to you. Where you pursue passions, hobbies (such as folk dance) and meaningful, enriching relationships with loved ones.

Lulzim, if you ever come across my strange little blog, keep on dancing. And to everyone who is reading this; be silly, have fun, spend time with your friends and family, doing things you love, read a book, hidhe vallen (dance). Be yourself. You’re allowed.

Although, you don’t need me to tell you so.

Peace, love and valle popullore.

You can read the Balkan insight article here: https://balkaninsight.com/2022/02/01/kosovo-albanians-join-video-campaign-to-support-folk-dancing-teacher/

Yes, I know there are typos.

Reflections on the virtual semester – Fall 2020.

Well, folks, we did it. We survived the COVID virtual semester. I guess.

I hope this post finds you well. I hope it finds you rested and in good company, whether it is family, friends, or your own. I hope you are taking some time off and taking care of yourself.

I meant to be better about posting and such. But, you know, COVID.

I recorded a voice note back in October in lieu of writing because I was tired but I wanted to get some thoughts out. So, I have transcribed it here because as messy as this is, I think there is an important message. So, bear with me and lets’ see where this takes us:

October 21st, 1:00 AM

I’m exhausted and my brain feels like it’s underwater. But I had some thoughts, and I wanted to remember them. I definitely don’t have the capacity to type or look at my computer now so I thought a voice note might be the way to go.

I am tired. I am zoomed out, polled out, emailed out. I literally cannot look at an email without feeling a sense of deep dread in the pit of my stomach anymore.

Actually, when my phone goes off and I see a new email notification my anxiety peaks – I feel a twang in my stomach. I don’t want to open it. Because I just don’t want to have to read all of it. I don’t want to respond to it. And very likely, I will have to read it all and respond, because it’s not a spam email. How I miss the day of spam emails from Sephora or Groupon.

I’ve been thinking more and more about the state of the semester and the state of my mental health, and that of my colleagues, and somethings gotta give. This is not right. And I don’t know what the answer is, but this is not it.

Today the county that my university is in has declared a stay in place order for our undergrads because our COVID numbers are spiking. So, COVID is running rampant in my university, yet we are marching full steam ahead towards finals. This semester has been wild. I don’t think another word describes this semester better than will. Well, I can think of a few but let’s stick with wild. 

It blows my mind how our response to a global pandemic is a semester that is running at lightning speed with an exponentially increased workload for our students, and our GSI’s. And our professors and faculty, and everyone really, but I really feel like the brunt is falling on the students – the undergrads and graduates. And I don’t mean to take away from the faculty and professors who are working so hard, to discount their labor and their time. But honestly, as a GSI and a graduate student, personally, I am one unfortunate event away from a mental breakdown. Or maybe I am there already. I am talking to my phone at 1 AM.

So let’s just kind of, and reflect on the state of things, and look at all the things that are wrong here, shall we?

First, there is the fact that our university is prioritizing money over us, to put it simply it has been made clear many times that our lives, mental health, and well being are not worth more than the all mighty dollar. Great feeling.

So here we are, pretending like everything is ok. Working from our rooms or dorms or wherever we may be. And the ironic thing is that instead of having a slower pace semester as one might assume if you’re going to go through with classes in a global pandemic, we have done the opposite.

As a result, my students are anxious. They are exhausted. They are confused. They are terrified. My students have had COVID! They email me asking for an extension on their assignment because they have COVID. That’s the first thing that pops into their mind when they find out they have COVID.

Like, kid – I am so sorry that this is your train of thought right now. That you have a virus that is killing people. And we have programmed you to worry about your stupid grade so that you email me at 7 pm on a Friday asking for an extension when you should be resting. This is what we have done for our students. And we are doing this to ourselves too because I was just talking to my roommate the other day and honestly both of us were thinking, if we were to get it – get COVID – our first thought in our minds would be “oh my god, how am I going to get through the semester.” That is how we have been programmed by this commercial, consumeristic, capitalistic system. Where we prioritize our classes, our “education” over our health. And that’s really fucked up, to be honest. And I don’t want to blame us really, I blame this system for this, fully.

We have created this system where it’s like a zero-sum game where you either play by the rules or you forfeit. And for many of us, we have invested way too much of our time, energy, and labor into our program to forfeit now. I’ve been in this game for over 8 years now, I can’t quit, I’ve invested pretty much my whole adult life into this – so there is no going back for me. I mean never say never.. but still.

End of transcription.

I did say it would be a mess, but I hope you were able to follow my train of thought, muddled as it was. My point is – this semester was terrible for my mental health, and from my observations, that of my peers and my students. So I don’t think I am over arching when I say this was likely the case for many many others. I am not blind to the fact that it is a privilege to be able to attend school, safely, online from my home. And that many people had to risk their lives daily to go to work to keep the rest of us afloat – I understand that. I merely wanted to reflect on how the academic year progressed and see if there is room for improvement as we move froward – and there is always room for improvement, my friend.

I acknowledge that most universities were laxer in terms of grading and deadlines to accommodate students struggling with COVID or COVID related issues. And I acknowledge that how accommodating individual faculty members are is really up to them, and there is not much the admin can do to ensure that everyone plays by the new COVID rules. I was lucky that my professors were understanding – but I know this was not the case for everyone.

I know that many countries are now rolling out the vaccine but the vaccine is not a miracle cure. It will take time to get enough people vaccinated for us to have some sort of immunity. We still have to be careful about social distancing in the meantime – virtual school may our reality for longer than we want to even think about. And if that is the case, we need to learn from this semester. Because to be very frank, I don’t think I can handle another semester like this.

It is so easy to over book and overextend yourself in a Zoom semester. To agree to another meeting because you don’t really have to go anywhere, anyways. To attend another seminar because its free or because you have a 40 min gap in your schedule. To eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in front of a Zoom lecture. Or to forget to eat all together.

I am not going to sit here holding my breath that all the change needed will come top-down. What I can change however, is how I approach next semester personally. So if you have some advice for setting healthy boundaries and managing virtual learning, please do send them my way! In the meantime, I think the number one thing I will be prioritizing in 2021 is valuing myself and my time more. I was terrible a doing this past semester, and my mental health suffered it greatly.

This does not mean that my approach to 2021 will be avoidance – to check out. I will of course, still put 100 % into everything I do. I will try to be the best student, GSI, colleague, and accomplice I can be. But I will also try to be the best sister, daughter, and friend. And to do any of these things, I need to be a good caretaker of myself – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

So fellow students, as we wrap up 2020 and head into 2021, remember to love yourself more. You will get everything that you need to get done. But remember that to tackle that ever growing to-do list, you need to be ok first.

Peace, love, and positivity.

(And all the sleep.)