In this episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Katie Rose Guest Pryal, co-founder of Blue Crow Books and author of Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education, about her ideas for the future of higher education. We talk with Katie about mental health and disability in higher education, the challenges of an academic culture that rewards overworking, the importance of self-care, and being able to bring your whole self to your work. Katie sees hope for a different future of higher ed through supportive programs for graduate students that stress emotional support, collaboration, and a holistic approach to academic work. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @krgpryal.
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Music Credits: “Come Right Here” by Tendinite, licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-NC-ND license.
Mary Churchill: [00:00:00] Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts, Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam, bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Do they rock the boat? Yes, but in doing so, they rock the academy.
Roopika Risam: [00:00:26] On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we are joined by Katie Rose Guest Pryal, an author, essayist, and law professor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She's the author of the #1 Amazon bestseller Life of the Mind, Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education. She's also the author of The Freelance Academic: Transform Your Creative Life and Career, and Even if You're Broken: Essays on Sexual Assault and #MeToo. Katie is a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education and Women in Higher Education. She is also co-founder and co-editor of the Disability Acts magazine and co-founder of Blue Crow Books, which has published many best-selling and award-winning titles.
Mary Churchill: [00:01:12] Hi Katie! So, you have a really fascinating graduate school background, a master's in creative writing, a law degree, a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, and you're now full-time writer. What are the primary insights on higher education that have come from this incredible, multidisciplinary journey?
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: [00:01:31] I use every single thing I learned along the way today. I use what I learned in law school constantly, not only the fact that I know how to write a good contract -- I own a publishing company, and so I'm able to write contracts -- but also good decision-making skills, how to negotiate, how to not jump in and fire off an angry email when something happens. Because you learn to be, in a good way, conservative and thoughtful. The other thing I did the whole time I was in school was I worked. I worked as a nanny and a bartender and I learned about time management and I learned about the importance of just working -- going to work every day. And now that I work for myself, that discipline has really paid off.
But I didn't really learn about higher education itself though until I started teaching. I've never held a tenure-track job, although I've taught in college for 15 years, and currently, by the way, I am teaching again as an adjunct at UNC law where I taught -- that was the last teaching job I held as a full-time professor. So, they've invited me back to teach as an adjunct. So full circle.
Mary Churchill: [00:02:38] I'm just going to ask a couple of follow-ups on that, which is what do you think higher ed is doing well, as a student? You've been a student in all these different areas as well. And, so, where were we doing a really good job and where did we really suck?
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: [00:02:52] Well, let's talk about grad school. In every program -- my master's in creative writing, my law school program and my PhD, which is in English, but the specialty is rhetoric -- I faced serious mental health problems. And if you look at those three programs, you would think they're quite different from one another. I did face serious mental health problems every single time. Before I started grad school, when I was finishing up my undergrad, I had a lot of familial support -- more than most people have probably. And I received full testing for bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed, I had a psychiatrist, and so I had that support at home. But then I just flung myself out into the world and here's what I encountered: Finding a psychiatrist in a strange city who would be willing to see me for a short period of time, who didn't know my medical history, and also who was someone that I trusted, that was super hard. It was really hard.
During my master's program in creative writing I had to write a full-length work. You know, it's the pressure to work constantly. It caused deep anxiety. There's probably a period of time there where I didn't sleep at all. Looking back now, I don't even know how I survived. And then, during law school, I was extremely depressed. And I also had, I know now, untreated anxiety. And, you know, that's not unusual, of course. And I was, I am prone to that. But one in six law students has been diagnosed with depression while in law school. Nearly 40% are screened positive for anxiety while in law school, and nearly 15% meet the definition for severe anxiety while in law school. Law school is a culture, an environment that creates this. If you come to law school with bipolar disorder and then you get put into this squeeze --
Mary Churchill: [00:04:36] It’s a pressure cooker.
Katie Rose Guest Pryall: [00:04:37] Exactly. And there's not a lot of help. They're doing better now, but when I was in law school 20 years ago, there wasn't a lot of help. If you're a grad student, and then you go into a bunch of visiting professorships, whatever, while attending school and working and attending school, you know, we're itinerant. And so it's hard to establish good relationships with doctors. We have terrible health insurance. And then it's also hard to establish a good system for taking care of yourself. And then no graduate or professional program does a good job of encouraging good self-care or study habits. We're rewarded for overworking. They want you to overwork. They're like, “Oh yes. You know, whoever does the most does the best.” And so, if that's the culture, which it has not course corrected, then no one should be surprised that in every single one of these different environments that I or anyone would encounter psychiatric disability.
Roopika Risam: [00:05:30] So what are some of the ways that universities can help graduate students in this dimension?
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: [00:05:37] Let's talk about all higher ed workers, okay? Because I don't think it's just grad students. I think it's anybody who works in higher education. For grad students in particular, this culture of whoever gets to the lab earliest wins, that particular overwork culture is going to cause this outcome. We have to, we as senior scholars, people who guide younger folks through this, we have to say, “Stop. There is a diminishing return.” But for higher ed workers, generally speaking, if you are employed in higher education, there are particular problems that I think that institutions fail, fail to support their workers.
And this isn't just faculty, it's faculty, staff, “staffulty” -- you know, these lines are a little blurred now, right: who works in administration, who works as staff. But the main problem that I see is how they, how the institutions, approach accommodations for workers. Because the burden that they place on workers who seek accommodations for disabilities is so immense that no one seeks them: the requirements for disclosure, the amount of baring-of-your-soul to random strangers on the telephone. I thought about seeking accommodations when I was a professor. I thought, “Let me call the human resources department.” So, I called them on the phone and a person answered the phone who was not a human resources manager person -- it was just the person who answered the phone. And I said, “Hi, I work here. I am disabled. I would like to seek accommodations.” And the person said, “What's your disability?” And I'm like, “I don't even know who this person is.” And I said, “You know what? Nevermind.” And that is how that started.
And so I think that that's probably not the way that's supposed to go, you know? And I know now that the next step would have been that I would've had to go in and disclose, okay, fine. But then I would have had to sign over access to all of my medical records. And that burden that is placed on workers in higher ed to disclose everything about our lives shows such an immense distrust of disabled people. Which, of course, is at the root of all of this, is that disabled people are faking. They want extra. We're a burden on society. You know, I just was like, “I don't need anything. You know what? I'm fine.” And so, that is what a lot of people end up doing unless they have no other choice.
Mary Churchill: [00:08:07] As you pointed out, higher ed workers, especially faculty advisors, are doing emotional labor, right? They are in the classroom and more and more with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. And we are not equipping them with the tools or support that they need to have to deal with that.
Roopika Risam: [00:08:28] I want to make everyone in higher ed read your book Life of the Mind Interrupted because I feel like you identify these issues and potential ways that higher ed could make life just a little bit easier. Katie, your example gives me a lot of hope for higher education and its potential to be different. And so for our final question, we'd love to hear about what makes you hopeful.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: [00:08:57] Okay, well, I'm back. Right? So why am I back teaching? And I'm back because they, you know, I have wonderful colleagues. So, you know, the colleagues, my little cohort at the institution that I worked at were wonderful, and they have done so much work to create an environment – this is at a law school - an environment that is supportive of students, that does create an environment where law students can be heard and helped and supported and guided towards a healthier, maybe, a life approach. And what's interesting is that all of this work, which has been holistic by my colleagues -- and I will say that it has, they have done a fabulous job -- has led to outcomes like numerical markers such as bar passage rate, and other things -- these fabulous numerical markers.
But the work that they have done really has a lot to do with support, including emotional support and advising and things like that. So we have these, what you'd call like soft skills support, that has yielded academic numerical markers. So, it's that sort of thing that has given me hope that you can take this brilliant cohort of professors, who have said, “No, we're going to stick to our guns and approach these things that we know work. We know it is important to meet one-on-one with students, even though it's hard. We're going to do this a lot and we know it is important to have your office door open and to listen to them when they tell you what they're worried about and these sorts of things." And then to have our bar passage rate go through the roof because of this.
And also of course they invited me back, I guess despite the fact that I, you know, wrote all the things that I wrote, and they don't think that's a problem, which is kind of amazing to me.
Mary Churchill: [00:11:03] Katie, one thing that you made me think of was, we're starting to use this phrase more in higher ed about creating a space where you can bring your “whole self” in, right? Not just part of yourself, not just the parts that are socially acceptable or that are, you know, kind of desired. But really bringing your whole self in to higher ed, and faculty and students are really pushing for that, which is huge to be able to be yourself at work and be yourself in this environment rather than just partially yourself.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal: [00:11:35] You know, when I was leaving, one of the things I said was, “I feel like it can only be 70% Katie.” That's one of the things I said. My colleague who I adore, she said, “Well, I don't see how you could possibly stay. That sounds miserable.” But I don't feel that way now. Even though I'm back at the same place, I feel like I can be 100% me and that's a great feeling. And it's because they have done that work to make it a place like that.
Roopika Risam: [00:12:10] You have been listening to Rocking the Academy where Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Catch more episodes at simplecast.com.