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This is Not Quit Lit

BY Eric Ritskes / Education / 0 COMMENTS

This is not quit lit. I am not quitting.

It has taken me a long time to come to this point, to feel like I am not quitting. I am choosing something else and sometimes moving forward means leaving something behind. I am choosing a different direction, a different career, a different space to work and engage in. I am leaving my PhD behind.

When I try to articulate why I am making this decision, there are so many thoughts, emotions and stories but always so few words which to articulate them with. My mind races, thoughts tumble and jumble about, my heart races and I stumble through words that don’t ever seem to fit. But each time, these scattered half-thoughts come back to this simple idea: choosing to leave my PhD is about health, in a very broad and holistic sense.

I want to be healthy and I have not found a way to do this in this academic system. Many others have found ways to maintain their health in this system, other shoulder ill health as long as they can, but I am unable to. I tried, to the best of my abilities, but I couldn’t. The precarity (financial and otherwise), the lack of support systems, the competitiveness, the busyness, the isolation, the prioritization of extractive relationality that permeates academic environments, the diminishing career opportunities… whatever it was, cumulatively, it was a space that took my mental health, emotional health, and physical health from me. Ironically, one of the reasons I began a PhD was my love of learning but, in the process, I forgot to learn how to take care of myself. So, now I am pursuing health by removing myself from academia. This is about me and learning how to take care of my whole self. This is about finding new healthy relationships to work and struggle, as well as family, love, and just being.

I am leaving behind something that I pursued relentlessly, something that I believed would be my career, and something in which I invested an exceedingly large amount of energy, time, finances, and passion. It is not an easy decision and it is one that can still wrap my head up in guilt, doubt, shame, and fear. But, as my therapist tells me, I am a relational, emotionally driven person – I need to listen to my emotions, my feelings, and honor what I feel is right for me. And I feel done. I feel depleted. I feel disconnected. I feel ready to move on, ready to choose something that is healthier.

There are so many things that the academy is not and will never be no matter how we might hope to rework or reclaim it. There are many things that it asks you to do and to be. Still, I am grateful for those who continue to struggle to transform these academic spaces, they were a life raft for me during the past nine years. I know they are indeed out there changing structures that are resistant to change. But I am choosing to spend my time and energy elsewhere. This is not a conclusion, nor is it a last word. I am journeying on, continuing the struggle. I will continue to learn, to read, to write, to support, to teach, to create, and to be. But in different ways. I am still plodding away, trying to be/come a better person. In this, I am insistent.

My life currently feels like a giant mess and I have no clue what the next step holds. I want to be able to feel good again, to feel supported, to feel part of a community that is creative, genuine, collaborative and loving. I want to be appreciated, I want to laugh, I want joy, I want to support other’s work, I want to build, I want to breathe. I think this will take time, because it feels so far away at this moment. I look forward to learning how to write again, learning how to talk to people and just hang out again, learning how to laugh again, learning how to be healthy again. It is going to take time to feel better. But I remember what these things felt like. I hope it’s like a riding a bike, that the emotional memory is there so that when I get to that spot, it just feels right and I know how to keep step. Or maybe I have to learn it all over again. Either way, I’m ready. It’s not failure to want these things, to feel for these things, and to try and find these things.

I am reminded of lessons that I am trying to learn from the natural world around me. When plants let go at the end of a season, we call it seeding. When salmon run upstream to die, they spawn the next generation of salmon. Snakes shed their old skin as they grow. The earth often reminds us that for something new to spring forth, something has to be left behind. One step forward, what must be left behind?

I hope that by leaving academia I am not leaving behind the best parts of it, though it is this fear that has delayed my being able to leave. I am afraid of leaving behind the networks and people that I have thought with and fought side by side with. In the midst of all the precarity and bullshit, solidarities were forged and relationships built. The newest Fred Moten text was hotly read and discussed, manifestos were written together, ideas were formed and broken and re-formed, often over coffee or drinks or meals. And yet, it also felt that the academy always seemed to break these relationships down, always intruding; at times, it took away my ability, motivation and desire to relate with others in genuine ways. The precarity impacts us all. So, I look forward to rediscovering these connections and moments without academia’s looming presence.

And I am afraid that I will lose the time and space to read, write, and think in concert with the many brilliant people who informed my thinking, work, and writing for the past nine years of graduate school. But I also know that so many times the academy constrained my writing, took away my time, and forced me to write and think in particular ways. So, I look forward to reimagining these practices, to writing in different ways and to different rhythms.

I don’t know exactly what is next. For the past nine years, I’ve been singular in my focus, believing that focus was needed to succeed in what was a highly competitive space. Now, I can allow myself to breathe and think beyond this single-minded focus.

I want to be able to recognize, despite the difficulty I have in doing so right now, the ways in which the past nine years have been a time of learning, a time of successes, and a time of important and necessary growth. And learning, success, and growth are collective processes, not individual ones. One of the things that I had been most looking forward to in writing a dissertation was writing out my acknowledgements. It was a chance to center and reflect on all the relationships and collaborations that had built a document that, by design, had to have only my name on the front. Knowledge is never built in isolation. Special thanks needs to be said for Rubén Gaztambide-Fernandez and Eve Tuck who have been invaluable mentors; having them in my corner was a gift that I always sought to honor because I knew its immense value. They made me better. As people, as scholars, as teachers – they excelled at it all and the past nine years would not have been possible without them. There have been so many others that have invested in my life and work over these years that I cannot name them all – know that I hold these relationships and commitments closely and that you were the best parts of this grad school process. The very best part.

I am not quitting; I am moving forward and this letter is part of that process. I’m moving forward, hoping to feel my way into a healthy place, into relationships that sustain me, and into creatively building these places with each of you, places where we can all feel healthy, places where we can all thrive in the ways that we need. Thank you for doing that with me.

 

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Tectonic Shift(s)

I've always written poetry. Most of it has been bad, some of it might have been good. Most of it I've had no idea if it was 'bad' or 'good'.

I've never published any poetry. This might have something to do with that I've no idea if my poetry is 'bad' or 'good'. Despite an undergraduate degree in English literature, in which I took a number of classes specifically about poetry, I'm not really sure I can tell good poetry or bad poetry.

So, this might be bad.

But this last year has seen a reinvigoration of poetry writing in my life. I'm not sure what sparked it, if it's a continuation of past poetry writing practices, or if it is the result of some 'spark' at all. But, I have decided to share some of it.

This is not the best poem I've written. Mostly I know that because I have no idea how to evaluate what my best poem would look like. But, it is a poem. It is the first poem I wrote in this period of 'reinvigoration', and sometimes what is first is the truest expression of what you want to accomplish, of what you hope to do. Sometimes it is only a first draft of what only long hours and long discarded drafts can accomplish. Either way, this is my poem.

 

Tectonic Shift(s)

A shift in landscape reposes questions of relations:

How do you hang on when the world is leaning?

It is an imperative, for times that have long passed into the future,

For working new plots of land.

Local movements in cities, apartment blocks,

Moving mountains, train tracks glacially tenured.

What is the appropriate action,

When you know that there are two sides to every coin?

 

Is this a deviation from the generalized state of security, or

Standard Operating Procedure?

 

Can we formulate practical proposals that are not

Stillborn from the mouths,

Absent of the necessary blood and sweat and tears and rebel yells?

Why do things get worse with each revelation,

Each roiling rotation,

Each revolution?

 

They prowl, they categorize, they build where we burn

And all the while we dream nascent dreams of the past.

Some claim immunity while others claim impunity.

 

Can you count the pain? Can you balance the white sheets

Draped over prone bodies and heads?

Spectacle of the splinter, driving it in - oh so - deep.

Transformation of naïve innocence

In order to bear witness,

To say their names, ages, sisters, and their sins.

 

It all seems so insane yet so calculated, so fluid yet so proper.

What do you hang on to when the world is leaning

In sanctimonious excess

And you don’t know your own hands, your own head

And compromise is the only position your body knows?

 

The impunity of the inarticulable violence that stalks our dreams,

That lifts each foot each step, away, yet still touching, holding on

Movement without a hope, spinning tops waiting to fall.

Ignoring the face of this place,

Which smells oily and law-like in its shame,

We dream gaps into being so that we,

Never filling but always falling,

Might run into them.

The continued violence of #AllLivesMatter: Mural of Sandra Bland defaced in Ottawa

The backlash to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which sprung up last summer during the resistance in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and beyond, was as speedy and as certain as the three seconds Cleveland PD needed to gun down Tamir Rice in a park. The hashtag #AllLivesMatter sprung up as a pushback to the centring of Blackness; the hashtag was challenging and fear inducing to white supremacy even in its centering of Blackness as an epicentre of white violence. This violence is visited by white supremacy upon Black bodies in a white colonial state and this revelation, while not really a revelation to anyone who is not white, seemed threatening enough to white folks that they immediately erased Blackness yet again and reasserted white violence with the #AllLivesMatter hashtag.

Many penned their reasons explaining why #AllLivesMatter was racist and violent, hoping perhaps that there were some well meaning white people out there using it by accident. And perhaps there were a few. Yet, the sentiment survives and, in fact, has seen a revival in the recent US presidential race, most notably with Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton walking into a Black church and proclaiming “All lives matter.” Understanding the power of #AllLivesMatter matters...

What has also continued is the murder of Black people by police. As activists have noted, hardly a day has gone by without someone in American being murdered by a police officer, the ones who some still trust to ‘protect and serve’. One of the most recent cases was that of Sandra Bland, a Black activist pulled over for an alleged traffic violation, roughed up by the arresting officer for daring to assert her rights in the face of routine police intimidation, and found dead in her jail cell days later. While an investigation is still ongoing, to many there is no doubt that Sandra’s murder is part of an ongoing pattern of the state and their belief in the disposability of Black life.

In the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, artists Kalkidan Assefa and Allan Andre painted a mural in Ottawa in remembrance.

Original Mural, via Ade Boluwatife (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153328745204300&set=a.10151131979674300.445670.504909299&type=1&__mref=message_bubble)

Original Mural, via Ade Boluwatife.

This is significant in it’s cross-border connection making. Canada promotes a narrative of blissful and peaceful multiculturalism, particularly in contrast to race relations in the United States. And yet, Black life is routinely erased, in many ways. The day after the mural was painted, activists marched in Toronto to protest the police murders of Jarmaine Carby and Andrew Loku, Black men gunned down by police. They shut down highways, reminiscent of actions south of the border. In Montreal, the same week, two police officers were found guilty of beating a Black man stopped for a traffic violation. Canada does not value Black life any more than the United States; in this, colonial states are remarkably consistent.

Less than 48 hours after it was completed, the mural of Sandra Bland was defaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Defaced mural, via RJ D. Jones.

Defaced mural, via RJ D. Jones.

Make no mistake, this is an act of white supremacy. #AllLivesMatter is a mantra of white supremacy that ignores history, social relations, power, and, most of all, the lives of non-White people. #AllLivesMatter is a mantra of peaceful multiculturalism that proclaims equality in the face of disproportionate violence against Black and Indigenous peoples, in particular.  #AllLivesMatter is hate speech, especially when splashed across the mural of a slain Black women, erasing once again Black life, remembrance, resistance, and presence. It proclaims that Sandra Bland’s life does not matter underneath of #AllLivesMatter.

This defacement was spotted by RJ Jones, who organized a group of Black, Indigenous and white allies to attempt to fix the mural. This too is significant in its connections. In Canada, like in the United States, Black and Indigenous peoples are the most targeted by police violence. In fact, days after Sandra Bland was detained and murdered by police, a Choctaw activist, Rexdale Henry, was found dead in his cell after failing to pay a fine for a traffic citation. While in different yet connected ways, Indigenous lives do not matter in the white colonial state. So it is Indigenous youth who recognized Black life as valuable, recognized the violence of #AllLivesMatter and attempted to restore the mural. As Anishinaabekwe writer Leanne Simpson wrote during the #BlackLivesMatter protests last summer, “I was reminded over and over this week that Black and Indigenous communities of struggle are deeply connected through our experiences with colonialism, oppression and white supremacy.”

Touched up mural, via RJ D Jones.

Touched up mural, via RJ D Jones.

The violence of colonialism and white supremacy continues, writing itself onto buildings, over murals, onto bodies and the land, and into the laws – and the enforcement of them - of our countries. #AllLivesMatter is a form of this violence and cannot be ignored, cannot be condoned, cannot continue. As Leanne Simpson writes, “To me, Ferguson is a call not only to indict the system but to decolonize the systems that create and maintain the forces of Indigenous genocide and anti-Blackness.” We must continue to resist, continue to remember Black and Indigenous life and, more importantly, begin to support and centre Black and Indigenous life beyond the spectacle of their death. We must decolonize systems of white supremacy that are built on Black and Indigenous death.

A version of this post was republished in the Huffington Post, here.

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