Let’s file this under the category of “advice I didn’t follow in grad school, but should have.”

There are a lot of think-pieces surfacing these days on the mental health cost of being an academic, and rightfully so. The rise of neo-liberalism in academic institutions has put unseen pressures on academics, provided them with less job security, and has destroyed anything remotely resembling a work-life balance. Many academics have either left their disciplines to work in the private sector or have cobbled together an income from temporary contracts, accepting that they will never have steady, long-term employment at a University, despite decades of training.

But mental illnesses are only one physical ailment on the rise in academics. There are other considerations that are not mentioned as often which can dramatically affect the health and well-being of graduate students and scholars, and can exacerbate existing conditions, including mental illnesses. Below I will take you through some of these issues and some suggestions I wish I had endeavoured to take seriously while completing my graduate studies.

  1. Sedentary Lifestyle: Sitting in front of a computer or texts day after day takes a toll on the body that is difficult to measure. Being sedentary for most of the day can exacerbate mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they also increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases. The sedentary lifestyle that accompanies graduate studies and an academic career is tough to deal with as it seems to just “come with the territory,” and very real efforts need to be put into combating the “sitting syndrome”. Standing desks might help break up the routine, or keeping an exercise ball in one’s office to replace your chair once and awhile can help keep you active, even when you have to work. You should also periodically take brisk walks, even if it is just around your department. The movement is good for you and it will help refresh your mind so you can come back to your work with new insights and ideas.
  2. Obesity: Related to the sedentary lifestyle is the risk of becoming obese which is dramatically increased in academics because of poor food choices and a lack of physical activity. A lot of people notice significant weight gain during their degrees and depending on the length of one’s program this can have significant long-term health effects, if not properly addressed. Keep active and pack a health lunch with snacks and plenty of water daily to combat this risk.
  3. Heart Disease: Interrelated to all of this is the risk of heart disease which can be exacerbated by inactivity, poor nutrition and/or obesity. The excessive stress that comes with an academic lifestyle, particularly the pressures to teach, publish and research simultaneously can contribute to factors which lead to cardiovascular disease.
  4. Diabetes: Graduate students especially are known for making poor nutritional choices, especially eating foods that are full of sugar and simple carbohydrates. The sugar boost that people get from consuming these foods results in a burst of energy to help people push themselves harder in their work, but the subsequent blood sugar crash might render your brain useless in a very short amount of time. Over time, these poor eating habits lessen your cell’s receptivity to insulin and blood sugar, leading to diseases like metabolic syndrome and even diabetes. Opt for whole foods as much as possible and limit overtly sugary foods.
  5. Exhaustion: There are no surprises here. Academics and graduate students are the chronically sleep-deprived. There always seems to be one more sentence to write, another article to edit, or another book to read. And without set working hours, it can be difficult to set personal limits, especially when someone is very emotionally invested in their work. Do what you need to do to get to sleep at a reasonable hour on a regular basis. Being exhausted puts you at risk for a host of issues, including exacerbating existing conditions like anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and so forth.

These are only a few conditions which can physically manifest when working as an academic or a grad student. And even though it can get annoying to have every single person you know is telling you to rest, take it easy, and take care of yourself: you really need to take that seriously and put your health first. Your work cannot be accomplished if you are ill, and it certainly won’t get done if you are dead. If you won’t do it for yourself, recognize that the world needs you and your work too.

Take care,

Nakita


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on being the recipient of the Sir Guy Carleton Graduate Scholarship in History. This award is endowed by the late Mrs. Agnes Agatha Robinson and is one of two scholarships awarded annually to graduate students of outstanding merit: one in English and Film Studies and one in History and Classics. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to fund her studies in Edmonton and research abroad. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

The tentative title of Nakita’s thesis is: Remembering the Departure of Morocco’s Jews: Personal Memories, Cultural Representations, Historiography and Silences


nakita

Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Welcome to the first installment of Writing Wednesdays – a biweekly column with writer and researcher for The Drawing Board, Rachael Heffernan.

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At the outset of writing my thesis, I sat down with my advisor with a pile of questions. Unfortunately, though I had over a hundred pages of reading notes, I had not yet written anything myself.

My advisor was not impressed. “You must write.” He said. “Writing is a kind of learning, you know.”

I did not know. I had always thought of writing as something that you did once you had figured out what you wanted to say. Sure, you may fill in little holes here and there as you go, but writing was, I thought, the step you took after you had learned about the things you wanted to write about.

That understanding came out of my (well-founded) anxiety of disorganization. If I wrote without a plan, or without sufficient material stockpiled, I couldn’t write for very long before I had to stop writing. I would pull out books and articles to help me, and pretty soon I was surrounded by various journals, loose leaf paper, and Word documents, all full of bits of research, ideas, brainstorming, outlines, and even the occasional well-formed and articulated thought. Inevitably, my rumbling tummy or a nearing appointment would draw me away from my wild research tornado. Upon returning to that project, maybe hours, maybe days later, I would find sheets of paper crumpled or lost, forget which journal I had written what in, search endlessly for the obscure Word document I had titled in my academic frenzy, and ultimately feel lost and discombobulated amongst the disconnected threads of consciousness strewn around my workspace.

Under the pressure of meeting deadlines, I did not understand the chaos that was my writing process as contributing to my learning; I saw it as a hindrance to my academic success.

It was not. As much as I may have many lessons to learn vis a vis organization, I now understand (thanks to the guidance of my advisor) how important the craziness of that initial writing phase is. It is active. It is inspired. It is energetic. And no matter how many sheets of loose leaf paper I may have lost, at least I was excited. Being lit up in that way can never be recreated by reading, or by debating, or by presenting. Those have their own types of elation. But fighting to find the exact right words for the idea you have had just now, or having new ideas even as you are writing your other new ideas down, or finding that you cannot write fast enough to keep up with all you want to say – these are the rewards that await us when we put words to page.

We are not stenographers, nor copyists – we will never be able to sit down and write all that is in our heads with no edits or second thought. Writing is messy, and tumultuous, and raucous, and unsystematic – but if we can allow ourselves to take joy in the pandemonium and appreciate it for its contribution to our learning, it can shift from a stressor to an adventure.


rachaelRachael Heffernan has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

Join us in extending heartfelt congratulations to our very own writer and researcher, Rachael Heffernan, on a successful defense of her Master’s thesis this week. Rachael’s research was on the body of God in the Hebrew Bible.

In the course of her academic career, Rachael has received a number of scholarships and awards, including the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

You may have noticed by now, but the women of The Drawing Board have accumulated considerable professional and academic successes in the form of accomplishments and awards. And we shamelessly celebrate these events every time they arise. While there is a lot to be said about online issues of contributing to another’s depression or low self-esteem when we celebrate our own successes, it is important to realize that publicizing these facts goes beyond mere celebration: they are acts of political defiance and feminist resistance.

Every time I have been inclined to share a success, I have been hesitant for a variety of reasons. In Islam, we are encouraged to thank God first (which I do, alhamdulilah) and to avoid showing off in front of others. Additionally, Muslims are taught about the dangers of the evil eye – or jealousy that comes from unexpected sources. The other reason I hesitate is my personality. For anyone who knows me personally, they know that self-confidence has only come with a lot of work in the realm of self-development and, even then, only recently. When you don’t think highly of yourself, and don’t want to think highly of yourself (as an ascetic practice) it is difficult to see the benefit of announcing your accolades publicly.

But there are a few reasons to do it.

Firstly, as Rachael has reminded me, people who are successful are often entangled in numerous projects and initiatives – so much so that they can forget to take the time to recognize what they have done. For people who are particularly focused on the betterment of their community and other altruistic work, it can be tragic to fail to realize how far you have come and the difference you have made.

For activists and academics in particular, this is especially important. Our communities (along with artists) tend to suffer from mental illnesses disproportionately. Additionally, activists can be focused on how much more work we have to do, and will push to make change tirelessly, not taking a breath in the meantime. The constant focus on the negative (on what is left to be done) can cast shadows over the light-filled ventures that activist projects can be for the communities they serve. And it can take away from the actual change initiated, making our work feel more like a performance than anything else. A moment of celebration or recognition can be the antidote to negativity before we put our nose to the grindstone again.

For academics, the focus on “what is left to do” is also ever-present, perhaps more so. In academia, you are constantly reminded of the greats who came before you, and how what you do will “never be enough.” Yesterday’s doctoral degree is today’s post-doc. A colleague of mine recently passed his candidacy and is now ABD (All But Dissertation) for his PhD program and when he made this monumental announcement via social media, he received some comments like “Don’t get too comfortable” or “Now the real work begins” when I personally think the only thing in order was a solid congratulations (which also came in droves). I can’t say how he felt nor what the others meant by those comments (he doesn’t even know I am writing this or thought about it), but I couldn’t help but feel like the reminders that others have “been there and done that” diminished the countless, likely sleepless, hours he had spent to get to that point. But that’s just me.

The second reason that it’s important to celebrate accomplishments comes to me from Liz. When I was really worried about posting that I had received the SSHRC for the coming academic year and to support my thesis research, Liz reminded me that, especially for women, the celebration of our recognition is its own form of social activism and feminist resistance. For me, celebration gives time and space to countless hours of work and tireless efforts. It means that long nights and juggled commitments have not been in vain. That slogging towards a better future can not only be recognized in the here and now, but ought to be. It is injecting a “good news” story into the prevailing narratives of oppressive patriarchy and can inspire others to pursue their dreams, whatever their inhibitions about them.

Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Director of Public Policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

 

 

 

This opinion editorial was written by Rita Neyer, guest writer for The Drawing Board. The opinions expressed are hers alone. Her bio follows the story below.

First pains.

There are these occasions where life surprises me with a first. Over the years, they have been less frequent, but yesterday was one of these days. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to criticism based on my race and body-shape, and these lines are my attempt to make sense of it.

Maybe this only happened at the age of 27 because I grew up in a rural European area. Maybe it is because I did my first degree in a mid-sized city in the same country where a body in all its manifestations is considered a natural component of a person, and racism is not based on skin-color, but rather on for how many generations your family has been living in that village. However, this incident yesterday made me think about stereotypes and the narratives—i.e. a standardized and mostly unquestioned discourse patterns—we produce around them.

Here is my account of what happened:

In order to celebrate the end of term, my friends and I had decided to see a comedy show at a local pub. My being late was rewarded with having to sit on that one first-row seat at my friends’ table that nobody wants to because the comedians would eventually make fun of the person sitting there. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Soon enough—I assume that is what comedians do when they interact with the audience?—I was chosen to represent the skinny, white, privileged girl, and the obvious implication was that I knew nothing about life nor about my privilege, nor about the history of those who did not  and do not experience such privilege.

Before attending the show, we had no idea what would await us—after all, that is part of the fun. After the show, I was totally distraught and perplexed. The comedian had made jokes about me being white and having small boobs. She had commented on my face that admittedly must have looked stressed from trying to keep up with her Southern accent and numerous references to American pop culture that are unknown to most Europeans. She had pitied me for looking as if I would break into tears over her story of having her nipple shot off. Thinking about it, she was right. Stories like these, all these events in somebody else’s life, and the narratives they represent are not really part of my world.

In fact, my world is a protected one of highly self-aware academic conversation that revolves around human interaction in all its facets. It fights gender binaries and religious antagonism. In its ideal form, it provokes constructive discussion while allowing different opinions to co-exist. It juxtaposes narratives with critical analysis of historical ‘facts.’ Some might call this leftist, but I tend to disagree: The form of intellectual interaction I describe here does not care about points on an arbitrary two-dimensional political line. It cares about understanding.

I migrated to Canada last year on the grounds of a four-year-scholarship from the University of Alberta, which gave me the good feeling that people here wanted me to contribute with my work and opinion. Canada was my first choice because of the country’s reputation as being anti-racist, egalitarian and open-minded. Ever since coming here, I have received an incredibly warm welcome. I have made many great friends; I found an amazing boyfriend; and I got the opportunity to do some serious work. Apart from some institutional issues, e.g. with the bank system or on the job market (I cannot lose the feeling that people do not like to employ foreigners), I feel very well accepted and even integrated to the extent that my interaction with people here changes both our vantage points for the better.
However, as a recently ‘converted’ historian (my first degree was in Classics) doing a Ph.D. on early modern suicide, my personal experience with modern-day racism and the various facets of body-shaming have been based mostly on hearsay and what I read in newspapers or blogs, and thus yesterday’s incident was all the more irritating. This personal first feels like an awakening from a nice dream to a slightly unpleasant reality. As an academic, I embrace this while recognizing its unpleasantness. I found that just because I spend most of my life in a privileged academic environment, the concepts I try to deconstruct do not cease to persist in a reality other than my own. Calling out privilege and the division that comes with it will not stop as long as there are those who deny it exists, those who deny that the system continues to be broken. Navigating my privilege and honouring the less privileged experiences of others while figuring out how to move forward together is the challenge at hand.

At the same time, this also made me more aware of the way our society, especially in North America, deals with these problems: taking the bad things in life and turning them into something we can laugh about, to paraphrase that same comedian. By making fun of a random white woman, she had found the perfect means to make her point. However, this is a double-edged sword, since it exposes existing narratives of discrimination by replacing it with new ones.

In the post-colonial narrative,  the one who throws off the shackles first is understandably lauded; however, the colonizer cannot be universally demonized based on the colour of their skin either. To do so is less a criticism of the system that perpetuates social violence and more so the creation of new victims within it, another “us vs. them” mentality, when all our world needs is a “we.” This is not to gloss over the historical experience of different groups, nor to ignore a position of privilege occupied by others. However, it does mean adopting an attitude of cooperation rather than antagonism, particularly for individuals who consider themselves allies.

What I appreciate about this experience is that it gave me the (admittedly unwanted) opportunity to experience such a situation first-hand. I got, in a very small way, to feel the reality of other people daily: the reality of being discriminated against for the colour of their skin or the shape of their body, regardless of the contents of their mind.  I thought I knew how it would feel, but no empathy can ever prepare you for how it hurts. And I am so very sorry that this is reality for so many women daily.

I could have been outraged but this would have just fed the narrative of a privileged white girl finally seeing what it feels like – a narrative that does as much violence to those who perpetuate it as to those it is perpetuated about. In this way, I don’t blame those who push the story of white privilege onto those who are allies. As the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic said, “People have so much pain inside them that they are not even aware of” and I have realized that the best chance to understand other peoples’ pain is to experience a similar pain of your own.

rita neyer.jpgAfter growing up in Western Austria, Rita Neyer first came to the University of Alberta through an exchange program in 2014. According to her friends, she liked Edmonton more than most Canadians do—she successfully reapplied and returned in 2015. She holds a Master’s degree in Classics (Latin) from the University of Innsbruck, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in History. During her first degree, Rita worked as a Student’s Representative, Latin instructor, teaching assistant, and reader for various newspapers. In 2012, she was named winner of the first Neo-Latin poetry slam hosted by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies, and was awarded the Richard and Emmy Bahr scholarship one year later. After finishing her degree, Rita gained work experience as a cataloger for medieval books, and published an edition of an early modern German manuscript.

In her opinion, the most important principle for all academic work is interdisciplinarity. Rita’s research interests hence include a broad and growing variety of areas such as jurisprudence, linguistics, literature, natural sciences, environmental studies, philosophy, and—most recently—history of suicide. In 2016, she presented at the University of Alberta’s HCGSA Conference. Outside of her academic work, Rita is trained in conflict management, and speaks over ten languages. For retirement, she wants to study physics and learn how to play the drums (depending on the neighbors).