It’s Labor Day weekend and the beginning of the third week of a quarantined fall semester due to COVID-19. Over the last couple of weeks our community was home to considerable displays of decadence — parties of 100s without social distancing or facial coverings. Now the National Guard is coming to town to help cope with the surge of COVID-19 cases. Pullman topped the New York Times list of highest percentage of COVID-19 cases per capita on Labor Day. I hear the increased frequency of the Medivac helicopter flying over my house transporting people to Spokane; reminding me of the day I nearly lost my family as they were transported away in that very same helicopter.
This is when it gets real, as in real hard, for students, friends, and community. People will die as a direct result of our lack of ability to check our decadence. With the days only growing darker it’s time to look within ourselves and eachother to try to find hope and inspiration to keep going. Elitism is a fantasy.
That’s when I came across Darin Weed’s story of struggle in the Academic Twitterverse. Stories of grit leading to success in the face of systemic flaws are what people need right now. As a successful, tall, white, male, academic, I’m also reflecting on how much of my own success was due to hard work versus privilege and how I’ve tried to steer clear of decadence my entire career. With any luck we’ll reach a couple conclusions that will help some of you relate and make it through similar frustrations.
Some quick definitions:
Decadence: moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.
Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
The following short stories are limited to 280 characters as an experiment for all of those in the Academic Twitterverse who are fond of threads/tweet storms and still looking for reasons to create a proper blog.
Hard times that defined me
My Dad sold autoparts for GM. During a 3rd grade ‘job shadow’ day I was standing behind a guy who yelled at him over the price of an $18 plastic part. I have zero tolerance for disrespect of service workers. “The experience people have with your brand is in the hands of the person you pay the least.” -Krulak’s law
When I was in 2nd grade my Mom sold pool chemicals and decided to go back to college. We couldn’t afford cable, got many of our clothes from GoodWill, and subsisted on potatoes & venison. Mom always knew what we could afford. She was soon the bread winner. It was normal.
We would recreate by going fishing, hunting, and berry picking in Idaho’s National Forests. We drove a used rusted-out Datsun Diesel pickup with a king cab. My little sister and I sat on wooden speaker boxes my Dad made with two full size dogs between us. I’m so grateful for free access to public lands.
In 5th grade I was recruited into an experimental program for peer conflict management. I spent the next four years teaching my friends about misundertandings.
In Junior High my little sister was diagnosed with a developmental disorder, handicapped, and hospitalized after repeated suicide attempts. She survived, is still disabled, and brilliant: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/2017/08/11/social-thermodynamics-empathy-for-autism-spectrum-disorders/
My Dad purchased a 1968 Chevy pickup from his uncle for $800. It was my first car. It didn’t run. This was how I learned mechanics. It was what he knew. I was known for driving classic cars — he built them all from parts. Thanks Dad: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/2018/06/15/you-dont-know-jack/
To say I was socially awkward is an under-statement. Over a several year period I unsuccessfully asked 26 women in a row out on dates. So I did what any scientist would do — surrounded myself with women and just listened. Turns out they needed to come to me and call the shots. That was normal.
In high school I mowed lawns to make money for college. My grandmother gave me $100/year for college from her Alaska Pipeline funds — not nearly enough. Mom said I was wasting time practicing for football and needed to get a real job to make money. Dad said I’d have my entire life to work.
I became good at football. Princeton flew me out for a visit. The decadence and privilege were alien, not me. Someone was always worried about some statistic. I learned that statistics mean something, but it’s how you respond that matters: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/2018/05/08/despite-the-statistical-evidence/
I accepted a full ride at the local Land-Grant, the University of Idaho, where my family had roots and the head coach had played my position — offensive line. I had found a way to pay for college. Relative to other schools, it’s hard to think of football at the UI as privileged. But it was and an honor.
Athletics programs are one of the few mechanisms for increasing both the racial and socioeconomic diversity in my region. At a steep price for people’s bodies and mental health.
I cracked a vertebrae in my lower back that caused permanent issues and was medically disqualified from playing in my second year. The NCAA honors scholarships due to medical hardship. I got lucky. I felt daily guilt as a financial burden to the team but was told to help the team through grades.
Football had already cratered my GPA and the UI Honors College gave me the boot. My only option was to work as hard as I could. Looking back, I worked harder than was sustainable.
On a car ride with my first graduate advisor and his wife I was asked my opinion of women in leadership. I responded that the only experience I had with a women leader was one whom he had hired, but liked. This was the first time I realized I was somewhere because of white male privilege.
My wife and I moved to Wisconsin where I’d pursue a PhD and she’d enlist in the Americorps. We survived on EBT/food stamps. One day I was explaining my research to someone in a checkout line at the Grocery, until I took out the EBT card to pay, when the conversation was abruptly halted.
Although they never showed scores, I was told I had failed the Ph.D qualifying exam and needed to find a job in industry. Then I won a national award for my prior research. Although I’m pretty sure I did about the same, I passed on the 2nd try. This was when I learned that privilege is cumulative.
I had just $3k to build my cryogenics experiment. Not enough. I machined many of the parts myself over long weekends in the lab.
My first interview for a faculty spot was at CalTech. I stayed in the faculty club two rooms down from Einstein’s. Extreme privilege & decadence. Their student maker spaces were dusty and empty. Not my style.
Nailed the 2nd interview to return home to the Palouse and WSU. Wasn’t ready yet & flailed for two years before eventually forcing traction: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/2019/09/11/how-hyper-hit-it-big-and-so-can-you/
Gave many presentations in Olympia and Seattle where people said, “I disagree with everything you just said.” Repeatedly had to deal with jokes and concerns about exploding my lab from colleagues.
Finally submitted a publication to the lead journal in my field. Was in review for 14 months and returned with one review and ‘minor changes’. Realized peer colleagues and robust publication metrics are a privilege and I will have to rebuild my field.
Received negative proposal reviews citing a lack of under-represented mentors from my department. I have none. Realized that diversity in academia has become a privilege capitalized on by the elite.
Realized our Land-Grant Mission, the grand equalizer, is the anti-thesis of decadence and privilege — core to my values and beliefs. Yet this mission has been taken for granted: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/2017/11/09/taking-land-grant-for-granted/
Realized that I can’t control where I was born, how I was raised, who I am, or the opportunities I accepted but was too naive to fully understand. But every day I can work to counter decadence, to advocate for the unprivileged, to present opportunities for passions, interests, and dreams wherever possible, to further our Land-Grant Mission.
Every step until now has shown it won’t be easy. I’m starting to believe that’s the point.