On December 1, 2011 the full professors of Claremont School of Theology rendered a unanimous vote to recommend that the Board of Trustees award me tenure.
In the academic world, tenure is a significant accomplishment to which many aspire from the early days of graduate school. It means job security – no small thing in these economic times (I can only lose my job if there is “financial exigency” and the school needs to close, or I commit some significant moral or professional transgression). It also means I have the academic freedom to pursue the research of greatest interest to me and I cannot be fired because someone in the institution disagrees with the politics of my work.
One of the more challenging aspects of the tenure application process is the recording of one’s academic productivity. A tenure applicant must keep records and evidence of the teaching, writing, research and service in which she has engaged for the previous decade or so. Then she must submit a curriculum vitae (C.V.) with said accomplishments listed in a particular rank and order.
This is harder than it sounds. For weeks, my two colleagues and I (all submitting tenure portfolios at the same time) sent emails at 1:30 am as we tried to figure out how to classify and describe our professional lives on paper. Does this sound like me? Where does one put “this”?
My C.V. quantifies what I’ve been doing for the last seven years or so. I wrote two single-authored books, co-edited an anthology; and wrote seven refereed journal articles, six invited journal articles, six book chapters, six commentaries, three book reviews and two encyclopedia entries. I gave ten keynote presentations and presented on over forty academic panels or conferences. This is the stuff of tenure.
As I compiled lists and corresponding documentation, I became acutely aware of what was not on paper. My friend and colleague Grace Yia-Hei Kao recently wrote a wonderful blog describing the roles that family and wider community play in the journey to tenure. Indeed that is a large part of what is not seen in the tenure dossier.
As I reflect on my journey to tenure, I recall the experience of developing my career while living with severe depression. I experienced my worst suicidal ideation in the first year of my doctoral program. My mental and physical health was severely compromised for most of my doctoral program and through the majority of my pre-tenure academic career.
Many times I attempted to hide the reality of my condition and its impact on my work.
- Always choosing the most expensive hotels during my guild’s conferences so I could sleep in between academic sessions and return to another event
- An in-patient hospitalization during the school year that no one on my job knew about because I called it “a family emergency”
- Committing to publishing or presentation obligations when I felt well, that I simply could not manage when I became ill before the deadline
- Taking numerous low-paying preaching and speaking opportunities to pay for the bills I incurred because I was managing a chronic medical condition without health insurance
- Asking my advisor to mediate homework assignments with other faculty because the medication I was on scrambled my brain’s ability to process information or drive in straight lanes
- Doubling my student loan debt in one year so I could finish the degree and get a job with medical benefits
- Lecturing on material I knew well because I lacked the focus to read for more than 10 consecutive minutes and could not prepare for class
In short, it was difficult.
- There were senior scholars who told me that I should not reveal or write about depression before tenure, one of whom called me “reckless and crazy” for the idea.
- Intimate relationships were often compromised when I chose between what-was-healthy-for-us and what-would-keep-me-alive.
- I had to learn to admit when I simply could not do what I wanted to do or what I had promised I would do.
- I lost countless hours of productivity to the inertia of depressive days and weeks.
- I was always conscious of all that I could not and did not do.
I spent years trying to save my career from the perils of my internal world. A look at my C.V. suggests that I was successful. But there is nowhere on the page to tell the story about the life of my mind.
For me, and thousands of other people in the world, living with a depressive condition also means working with a depressive condition.Work is more challenging because of silence, stigma and shame and sickness. If I take “mental health days” off for all the days I need them, I would have no income. This is my job. I felt like my choices were limited.
While there is no category for articulating the challenges, there is also no lines for saying how I survived. There were adversities, but there were also advocates:
- The advisor who could distinguish my intellect from my illness, and facilitated my leaving residency so I could relocate to a place with greater support
- The fellowship coordinator who brainstormed ways for me to find additional funding as the medical bills and relocation expenses piled up
- The non-profit colleagues who coached me in navigating county health services
- My supervisor who took my revelation of depression in stride indicating that “we all got something Monica”
- My fellow-academics who wrote or whispered about their shared experiences of trying to read and create when their minds failed them, or medication made them loopy and tired
- My therapists who supported relocation for a new job when we both knew it undermined the stability I had recently attained – new doctors, new friends, new weather patterns
- The memoirists whose writings were like air when I needed to know that I wasn’t alone
I work at an institution that doesn’t require me to focus on one aspect of my identity, passions or interests. I have mentors who support the work I do in both the academy and the wider public. I have colleagues I truly consider friends and allies. None of this is on paper either, but it makes the “life of the mind” much better.
I cannot name what separates my story from another. I don’t think it has anything to do with faith, blessing, intellect, perseverance or medication. I know too many people with those qualities and a different outcome. There is an inexplicable grace to survival and success. Down deep, I suspect that it is the flip side of that coin that robs life without cause or consideration. We don’t get to choose which side lands on us each day. Rather, we live, we work and we do our best. And we tell the stories of what can’t be seen on paper.
This is so wonderfully written and so poignant. Grad school is hard enough under the best of conditions, so I can’t even imagine what you went through. And then the pressures of t’angst are extreme enough too (once on the tenure-track). Something that’s staying with me is this line ” living with a depressive condition also means working with a depressive condition.” It is a testament to your tenacity, diligence, intellectual capacity, and I, would argue, God’s grace that you not only “barely” made it, but managed to accomplish so much! I feel blessed to count you as my good friend and colleague! –Grace
This is incredible, Monica – I already admired you immensely, but now that I have a clue of what you had to go through to achieve all that you have done, well, I’m bowled over. Well done!
Dear Dr. Coleman,
I have always been appreciative of your honesty, who you are, and the way you accept yourself. There are always so much to work with in life, though some have to navigate through more than others. I admire your courage, strength, and the ability to stay focus and trudge through challenges. It’s been very inspirational. Thanks for sharing and congratulations on your achievements.
I do understand and can imagine what you have gone through. I know that it takes more strength than many people can ever imagine. Thank you for courageously continuing to speak out. Your witness and your work inspire me.
Monica, thanks for this powerful story, your life of the mind; a great testimony and success. It is amazing how a person tells the story from deep down, which many people deeply feel the heart of your story.
Thanks for the reflection Monica, It is an honor to be your colleague, Santiago.
I so love your courage to speak the truth about you. Thank you for being a kindred spirit in many ways
I admire your resilience and perseverance, though I know that that must not have been an easy feat. I barely know you, except through your writings, but I’m really proud of you! As a Black woman of faith, and a scholar navigating the world of academia, research, and scholarship, I am sure that one’s mental acuity cannot be underestimated. Your journey is inspiration, and gives us hope that we can accomplish many things, even while dealing with chronic conditions, but that we NEED help outside of ourselves and yes, even our faith journey. Thanks for sharing, and Congratulations on your recent tenure! Very well deserved!
My goal is to earn my PhD in Women’s Studies. This past cycle I was unable to apply due to my depression. I will try again this upcoming fall. I read your blog entry and think, yes, I can do this. It is difficult but doable. It must feel amazing to know the reality of what you have accomplished. Congratulations on obtaining tenure!
Thanks for sharing. It gives those of us struggling courage and comfort. I don’t know you personally but I’m Godly happy and proud of you. God Bless!