The Roller Coaster that is Academia

By: Courtney L. Luedke

 

It was the first day of my spring break vacation when I received the news—news that I was not chosen for a game-changing opportunity that I had been working towards for several months, several years if you take into consideration my academic and scholarly pursuits. As I plummeted, I realized that I was still on the roller coaster, even though I was “away” from academia. The breaking of the news was difficult to hear; fortunately I had a friend with me to ease the pain of rejection. I vowed not to discuss it anymore during our vacation after that initial conversation. My four-day escape was a breadth of fresh air, no computer, no responsibilities; I managed to only check my email twice!

Reality set in as I returned to the Midwest. The following morning I arrived to one of my favorite Chicago coffee shops and started responding to the landfill of emails that waited. I took “breaks” between email to begin preparing for class the following week.  Then the email came in from one of my collaborators, mentors, and friends, a co-authored labor of love had been conditionally accepted to the American Educational Research Journal. AER-fucking-J. I was elated, we were all elated! My collaborator shared, “I’ve been trying to get into this journal for 15 years.”  We had done it (-ish, you know since it was a conditional accept—I’m focusing on the word accept, here). We were up. I sat with this joy, responded to my colleagues, called a friend (I had to share this out loud with someone who would understand what this meant), and then sent a group chat to my national academic familia. You know, one of those critical counter-spaces in academia (as defined by Daniel Solórzano and others) where we lift each other up and provide the encouragement and validation that we need. We celebrated together—we sent text messages, bitmoji’s and the like.  It was a celebration for ALL of us, because this work is OURS.  My accomplishment is OUR accomplishment.

After I came down from this high, I somehow got back into course planning, of course it was hard to focus so I returned to my email as excited messages were exchanged between my collaborators and me.  And then it hit, an email from the Review of Higher Education (RHE)…this time rejection. The roller coaster headed down again.  I read the comments.  Reviewer One’s feedback was thoughtful, and I could readily understand incorporating several of their suggestions to enhance my solo-authored manuscript, a piece that I am absolutely in love with by the way. Reviewer Two—we all know Reviewer Two.  I wondered whether they had read my full manuscript. The roller coaster was heading down, but I didn’t want to let this get to me.  After all, I had a conditional accept from AERJ on a co-authored piece.

Not more than ten minutes later, ANOTHER email from RHE lands in my inbox…an ACCEPTANCE.  An acceptance on a manuscript where I am lead author, with several amazing colleagues, including my very own graduate student! He was the first graduate student on my research team; he worked with me for two years and is now pursuing his Ph.D. This manuscript will forever have a special place in my heart; it focuses on anticipatory graduate school socialization and the importance of valuing students backgrounds and identities in the process. The roller coaster had changed directions. I was back up, way up!

So much of what goes on in the ivory tower is mysterious, our undergraduate students often think that all we do is teach, our graduate students know we do some research, but there is so much more. I have not even gotten into professional or campus service, not to mention my community engagement! I have recently started shedding light on my experience as a faculty member. I have started sharing publically about my trials and tribulations in academia, my successes and my failures.  In academia, we experience constant rejection.  We are regularly told that we are not good enough (not in those words of course, although that is often how it feels), that we were not selected, that we were finalists—but not THE finalist.  A good friend has consistently been there for me, always saying, “Let’s reframe this.” These are not failures, nor rejections; these are works in progress. This is practice towards the right opportunities that will come soon enough. Look how far we have come. The fact that we were finalists is remarkable.  Up.

I come from humble beginnings. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, nor did my two oldest siblings. In her 40s my mother began college, hoping to change the path of her younger children. And with that decision, she did. After her entering college, seven of my eight siblings have attended some college. While only three of us have completed bachelor’s degrees, and only I have obtained advanced degrees; my mother changed our course. My mother showed us that we could. I could and I did for her, for my family, and for the youth, black and brown youth, children who will be the first in their families to attend college. I hope that they will be able to look to me and think, “Well if she could do it, I can do it.”  This past summer I had the blessing of being able to stop by my niece’s dorm on the day she moved in, I held back my tears. She is attending the University of Wisconsin Madison, my alma mater, the place I earned my master’s and Ph.D.  The institution I aspired to—but never applied to—for my bachelor’s degree because I could not afford the application fee and did not think I could get accepted. I think about the example I am setting for her, my other nieces and nephews and my daughter. I hope that they see college-going as what’s next, not, what if.  Up, up.

Academia is a roller coaster.  We experience many highs and many lows. I am actively working to not see the lows as rejections, but rather as experience and preparation. I am committed to take something positive out of every experience. I attempt to demystify what is the ivory tower, to change the ivory tower, to make the ivory tower fit us (read more on this by The Latina Feminist Group). I am rejecting the underlying message that I must fit into the ivory tower, instead I am doing everything I can to bring ME into this space—without making accommodations. I envision higher education as a space for people from every walk of life. I hope for academia to be a place where individuals can make their way in a manner that is authentic for them.

 

I would like to thank my scholar brother who suggested that I write about my roller coaster day in academia, without your encouragement, I probably never would have.