Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 27

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

Readers, I have a confession to make. First, I think this blog would generate far more traffic (likely of the illicit kind) if my contributions were entitled, “Graduate School Confessions.” Perhaps Dr. Fea will consider such a change. But, I digress. I’m sure you’re all eager to read of my transgression, so here goes: Last week I applied to a job—not a fellowship, not a summer position as a barista, not a research assistantship, but a real nine to five, benefits, and paid vacation job. I also bit off all of my nails.

As you might know from reading my past debacles (a la Barry Zito), this isn’t the first time I’ve considered leaving graduate school. But my restaurant meltdown seemed to stem more from an overabundance of stress and a lack of balance. My recent meltdown was far less exciting and emotional, and in navigating my thoughts I’ve learned a lot more about myself as a scholar and as a person. Part of the problem, for me, is the isolation that comes from being in academia. I didn’t know about the tsunami in Japan or the school shooting in Rio de Janeiro, nor did I hear of Donald Trump’s absurd election prospect or the Fiesta Bowl corruption until well after the news had gone viral. Basically, I’m feeling detached from a world rife with problems.

After four years at Messiah College, one of which was spent in North Philadelphia, and two years living in the city of Harrisburg, I’ve had to confront first hand the brokenness of the world, the inequalities buried deep within our society, and the poverty that people face every day. Messiah’s Anabaptist tradition and emphasis on social justice really resonated with me and I felt compelled to be present in the city. In my limited and flawed way (as I am of course deeply implicated in the problems of urban decay as a white, middle-class person), I’ve tried to affect change, however small, in the places I live. While at Messiah I volunteered with the Catholic Worker House. In Philly, I gave time to Project Restart, and as a Harrisburg resident I started an outreach called Urban Youth Yoga.

During the first-year of my PhD program, however, I’ve been so overwhelmed by my workload and trying to balance time with friends and family, I’ve totally neglected my impulse for working toward social justice. My agitation with the program then, has more to do with the fact that I’m not being true to my heart. The increased amount of reading and writing, or the constant insecurity that comes from pursing a degree in higher education are real problems, but beneath them lay a far more critical issue—I’m losing myself in this process.

I had imagined for myself that my love of learning and my passion for social justice were incompatible. I was doing research that was detached from people who didn’t look and live like me, and I was so busy it was hard to imagine myself engaging in the wider community. But over the past week I believe I’ve found my remedy (and it’s not in a nine to five job)—to write with a greater purpose. Some academics are completely opposed to this idea and believe that objectivity reigns supreme over any type of agenda or sentiment. I’m not saying that I want to throw out everything I’ve learned about good research or a commitment to scholarly integrity. I’m just saying that I want to be more purposeful and that I want the research that I do to draw awareness to injustice.

I do not want to abandon my project on the sun and the sky in the southwest. There is something significant about this seemingly democratic natural resource. From almost any coordinate in Arizona one can observe the vast dome of cobalt blue, hedging the landscape in on all sides. The sun shines intensely upon the Salt River Valley, and the wiry mesquite trees, slender saguaro cacti and bristly desert broom can hardly shade the ground from the sun’s powerful rays. Many Arizona residents, however, have the ability to shield themselves from the heat and penetrating sunlight. Behind closed doors air conditioning units convert gas into a steady flow of cool air and press the treated breeze through ducts, artificially bringing the temperature to a tolerable level. But not all desert dwellers are so fortunate. Thousands of Arizonans live without air conditioning, either because they are financially incapable of maintaining a unit, are unable to afford rising energy bills, or simply live in a home without a cooling system.

Many more toil beneath the heat of the summer sun in order to provide for families. While many men and women sit behind desks, bathing in Freon-treated air, day laborers whitewash their wardrobes, covering their bodies in white in an attempt to reflect the sun’s rays. But reflective clothing only provides an inconsequential reprieve from the heat that pays no attention to protective garments. Direct exposure to the sun puts outside workers at risk for extreme dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even skin cancer.

These are just two examples, but it is becoming clear to me that socioeconomic status and race play a direct role in Arizonans’ exposure to or protection from the unforgiving summer climate. By drawing attention to this injustice, and examining the way environmental inequity has evolved in the state of Arizona, could be a viable topic for research—one that allows me to remain true to my penchant for social justice and one that does not ditch my interest in the profound impact the sun and the sky play on Arizonans sense of self and sense of place.

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