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February doldrums

So we have been experiencing quite the winter weather this year, what with the polar vortex and all, making a day like today (19ºF, what?) feel like springtime. In my personal life, things have been pretty normal (that means great) and academically I’ve been making substantial important progress on my dissertation and am where I need to be for right now. Work wise, I continue to enjoy the work I do. So why the doldrums? Is it more than an endless winter?

Lately it seems that a fair number of people I know have been more than a little frustrated by life on a systemic, more than personal, level; in the academy (for academics and/or graduate students) or in the profession (for social workers) and in the adoption community. I am definitely no Pollyanna to begin with, so all the news I read easily makes me feel a little more pessimistic about the state of our world and my fellow humans. I inherently believe in the strengths and empathic capacities of people, but wow, do our institutions often just wear us down until it feels we are all playing a more polite, yet just as ruthless version, of the office-place hunger games. I admit I sometimes need to skip through my facebook and twitter feeds because of all the dismal and wretched news about the academic landscape. Since this is what I hope(d) to be someday when I grew up, it’s disheartening. In addition to the dismal academic stuff, there is all the frustrating news I read, hear about or witness regarding the way the system chews up and spits out social workers and clients alike – and particularly in child welfare and adoption, my areas of professional and academic interest.

Yesterday at a department meeting, a colleague I respect a lot talked about changing the paradigm of “preventing burnout” to “sustainability” and that clicked something in me. Several of my women of color friends in academia and I have discussed Audre Lorde’s “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of warfare” and read bell hook’s “Sisters of the Yam” as preventative measures against burnout.

In every social work class I teach, I bring up the concepts of burnout, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma, all related but slightly different concepts (at least in the way I have conceptualized them). Because social workers are often working with clients that are or have experienced trauma (both crisis and sustained), they are susceptible over time of experiencing burnout, secondary trauma and/or vicarious trauma themselves.  It seems to me that once upon a time we talked in hushed whispers about “burn out” typically when referring to someone we knew who was crabby, mean,  sometimes overtly hostile to clients, or maybe generally unprofessional. When the shift toward viewing burnout as a symptom of vicarious and secondary trauma came, it felt more strengths based in that at least we could recognize the behaviors as being symptomatic of a larger issues and could see our colleagues as more than their symptoms (novel idea – we often forget this).

I like thinking about this in terms of sustainability. Sustainability is even more strengths focused. Social work in general, despite it’s value in strengths based perspectives, still tends to focus on symptoms to be managed instead of people and communities to grow and thrive.

sus·tain·able  (according to Merriam Webster) is:
– able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
– involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
– able to last or continue for a long time

How do we support each other in our personal and collective self-care, in a profession that often not just expects, but requires, us to go over and above on a regular basis? How can we look at each other’s self-care activities and think of them as being integral to long-term sustainability in the profession, rather than being selfish or disengaged?

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Conference musings from a late bloomer

I’m sitting in my hotel room desk, preparing for the first of my two presentations at the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting conference. It has been very interesting to observe this conference (or, as they prefer to call it, Annual Program Meeting, or APM) as a doctoral candidate. When I attended the APM a few years ago I was a graduate student who hadn’t completed all my exams or dissertation proposal, and I was pretty starry-eyed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s because of all the traveling I have done since then, the many conferences I’ve attended and presented, but this time feels very different.

Several of my good friends and members of my doctoral cohort are on the job market this year, and they are busy rushing from interview to interview. I’m exhausted just watching them and of course it makes me very reflective about my own job search in a few years. I am learning a lot from my friends, most importantly that thinking strategically and thoughtfully about what I want to do in a couple of years needs to be figured out fairly soon. I could go in many different directions right now.

However, no matter how confusing it seems right now thinking about all the things I want to do in the future and what might be the best direction(s) for me I am not for a second forgetting how privileged I am to have this “problem.”

I was never supposed to be here in the first place. Given my disadvantaged early childhood, thrown away like trash – although  I was given the opportunity to have better than my humble beginnings would have allowed, expectations were fairly low. I was not the “smart one” in my family. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I first realized I had the capacity to do well academically and that in fact, I loved learning. People can rise to expectations if they’re given both the opportunity and the support. I had both thanks to a very supportive partner in life who encouraged me to take the first step. Then I had some amazing professors who wouldn’t let me self-sabotage my trajectory as a non-traditional student trying to finish her undergraduate degree. They even encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree, which I first found ludicrous. Ten years ago it would have seemed incomprehensible that today I’d be embarking on a research study for my doctoral dissertation and considering which schools I’d like to apply to when I am finished with my program.

These are the things I remember when feeling overwhelmed with all the “choices” I have before me. What a luxury to have them. Not everyone is as fortunate.

PhD Elitism

In addition to posts of cute kitty videos and pictures of food (and I’m guilty of both) I find facebook to be a site of a lot of thought-provoking conversations recently. In particular, I have been following a thread about the people who have PhD’s and their elitism.

There is a lot of this sentiment going around lately; I hear political candidates whose parties encouraged higher education a few decades ago now bashing the push for college educations, much less advanced degrees.  I expect sweater-vest-wearing politicians to say such things, but when it comes from within your own community? Where is this critique coming from, to make such generalizations. What does this mean for those of us from under-served or marginalized communities with, or currently pursuing, doctoral degrees?

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The long and winding road to a PhD

Is this in line with my previous post, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?”

The grim reality of being in a graduate program!

I had to laugh at the statement “for many, the appeal of the “life of the mind” – being buried in books and surrounded by the intellectual elite – is the ultimate fantasy” because it is so true. In a way I was really fortunate that I had several friends in the middle of or recently finished with doctoral degrees when I began mine, so I had a heavy dose of reality to counter my fantasy. Even so, I often find myself realizing that like a stubborn teenager who thinks “it won’t happen to me,” many of the very things my friends warned me about are indeed part and parcel of graduate school.

The Long and Winding Road to a PhD
Via: Online PhD Programs

Subject or Object

Photo by Luigi Diamanti

I’m re-posting a blog post I wrote about three years ago on my other blog, that I initially titled “Life in the Fishbowl.” I wrote this post when I was reading a lot of academic books and peer-review articles about transracial and transnational adoption written by academics and adoptive parents (more on that later) and reflecting about how they relate to me, the subject and/or object of study. When I wrote this post I had been accepted into my current doctoral program, so I was also conscious about the research I was about to undertake and what the perspective(s) would be from “the other side” of the research.

As I’ve made my journey through school, one of the things I’ve been struck by is how little discussion there has been overall about insider/outsider issues – not just in terms of research (and what discussion I’ve had on insider/outsider research has been mostly contained in my qualitative research class) but also in practice.

In some areas of the “helping professions” there is a lot of emphasis on practitioner insider knowledge. Chemical dependency treatment and domestic violence are two areas in which it seems that a personal experience as a client is considered expertise. This is not so in child welfare, where my research areas reside, or in disability studies (my collateral area). I have met a very small handful of practitioners or researchers that come to child welfare as a client of child welfare services. That is, there is a very small group of foster care alum or adopted persons or birth families that have been *in the system* as a client of child welfare services that currently work within these systems as professionals. The most often recognized member of the foster/adoption “triad” that works in the child welfare system is the foster or adoptive parent – who are in some ways overrepresented – and they are often  put up on a pedestal as bastions of knowledge because of their lived experience.

But what about the now grown-up children and/or the birth parent, how do we contribute to this knowledge base? Well, unfortunately we are often considered suspect. Two things happen frequently when we talk about system changes that we think need to happen: 1) we are tokenized and 2) our objectivity is questioned, and we are told our personal experiences are merely one story, irrelevant to the larger body of peer-reviewed, quasi-experimental, large nationally representative data set that found X, Y or Z. I have told this story before – I was once told by an adoption professional that my lived experience as a transracial, transnational adopted person did not make me an expert on adoption. Somehow, this person believed that their experience as a professional made them more of an expert on my own lived experience than mine. This is what is frustrates me about the social work profession.

It is interesting to me that adoptive/foster parents aren’t considered to be subjective. In fact, in the social work and psychology field many research studies about adoption are conducted by adoptive parents who fill dual roles as parent and academic. Some even mention their adoptive parent status or their personal experiences within the articles they publish. Where are the research studies by adult adoptees and/or formerly fostered persons? Are we silent on our status? And if so, why? Have others experienced what I have – when wrestling with insider/outsider questions in research and practice – been told I was “too close” to the topic and that I should find another area of research? (My guess is that similar to other areas of research/practice, such as mental health, social work professionals with insider knowledge have also largely remained silent. How sad. I find role models like Kay Redfield Jamison very inspiring).

Some of us choose to work within the system as an agent of change. Others take a more grass-roots approach, organizing to put pressure on the policies and procedures from outside the system. In my adult life, working on behalf of the rights of adopted and fostered persons, I have taken both approaches at different (and sometimes at the same) times.

Personally, I don’t think the solution to these hard questions about how one approaches research and practice from within a population that one is also a member of should be to choose something else. I think that we need to dive in to the ethical dilemmas that are inherent – remembering that there are also ethical issues when researching people that are members of a group in which we know nothing about. Two sides, perhaps, of the same quandary – how much of our own experiences (or lack of) go in to our research and practice? And how reflective are we of our positionality?

And with that question, here is the re-post from April, 2008 on my former blog, Harlow’s Monkey:

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Exams…and now the waiting ensues

This morning, I printed out my final drafts of my preliminary exam answers. The past few weeks have been a blur. I discovered that children and partners are like cats; they do not like closed doors. Even so, it has been wonderful to have so much support as I have bundled myself into my office with stacks of books and chocolates.

Of course now the waiting begins. Six weeks at least, they tell me, until I find out if I passed my exams.

In the meantime, I’ll be ruminating on the philosophy of Bart Simpson and 30 Rock.

Newbie networking

Sswrlogo
I’m currently at the SSWR conference in San Francisco. I am fortunate enough to have friends in the Bay area, so I came a few days earlier and was able to spend some time with my friends. Then, another woman in my doctoral cohort arrived on Wednesday and we checked in to the conference and hotel. The two of us are the only two in our cohort, although there are several other students here (a few on the job market, they defended or are ABD) and some faculty.

Social networking via facebook and twitter and the like is easy for me. The more difficult part is the face-to-face networking. Although it doesn’t always appear this way, I am quite shy. I’ve really stretched myself over the past ten years so now I am at the point where, with a little effort, I can approach someone and say hi, even though internally I want to run away and hide. It’s actually a lot easier to network when the stakes are low. Here at this professional conference, my roommate/colleague and I had the same plan – to check out how this conference works, what kinds of papers and posters are accepted, and to get a general layout when the personal stakes were still low. Since both of us are a few years away from being on any job market and we likely won’t be submitting things for this conference until next year, it has been easier to just “be” here.

I have a lot more things I want to process about the conference, but need to wait until I have more time. I’m off to a Child Welfare interest group round table discussion in a little bit.