A Summer of Academic FOMO

Academic FOMO (Feeling of Missing Out, for any non-millennials who happen to be reading) is that feeling you get when you don’t think you’ve accomplished much as you approach the end of your summer “break” (to say break without quotations would be a lie). This feeling is exacerbated when you see your fellow grad students posting selfies in archives, views from archival reading rooms, and other pictures that show that they’ve done something academically productive with their summer (e.g. take a language course, do a research project abroad, publish something).

To be clear, you’re not annoyed with other grad students for being productive. Graduate school isn’t a competition. I mean, the job market is kind of a competition, but by that point, everyone’s qualified for the position and many things come down to pure luck. In the context of academic FOMO, you just wish you were as productive as your colleagues appear to be.

Academic FOMO may exist in college, or in any graduate program that lasts longer than one year. I remember experiencing it a few times in college when I would check Facebook after a morning full of PT, and would see pictures of people doing summer study abroad, or language immersion programs.

I managed to avoid academic FOMO during the summer between my junior and senior year, which is typically when one is supposed to work on developing a thesis argument/performing thesis-related research. That summer, I ended up fracturing my right tibia. I was not permitted to do any physical therapy/exercise that involved weight bearing, and so it was the summer of no Push to Walk, no FES cycle, and no standing frame.

That summer, I read dozens of books and articles, wrote up a ridiculously long list of notes for everything I read, and was so prepared for my senior year that, once the fall semester started, I was able to plot out my thesis, write chapters with mostly coherent arguments, and apply to M.Phil. programs/figure out how to transport all my PT equipment to England.

Since then, I’ve been cautious not to reinjure my tibia. This means that, any given week of the summer, I am doing at least fifteen hours of PT, not including the time it takes to travel to and from northern Jersey (which would tack on another 7-10 hours, depending on traffic). This puts a serious damper on how much I can get done over the summer, academically speaking. And then I wonder, would I get more done if I didn’t do PT, or have an SCI?

In other words, maybe this is what my summer should have looked like, in a world in which I did not have any PT obligations/an SCI:

  • German and Latin review, 30+ minutes each a day
  • Preparatory reading for generals
  • Potential intensive language course (possibly in Greek); likely at Columbia, where I would have commuted via subway everyday

If you think that all sounds robotic, monk-like, and terribly unrealistic, you’d probably be right. Indeed, my counterfactual nondisabled life doesn’t take my personality and habits into consideration, which I suppose can happen when people envision the most productive version of themselves. In reality, I can be a bit, let’s say, intense. I’m the sort of person who, upon becoming interested in something, will throw myself into it so fully that I become somewhat obsessed with it. I once, pre-injury, binged the entire Fullmetal Alchemist series in two days because a friend had recommended it and I became hooked immediately. A classmate started a podcast about women in history and I listened to half the episodes yesterday. I became interested in YouTube beauty videos, and then ended up subscribing to about twenty “influencers.” When I decided to learn Latin, I bought a Wheelock’s book and spent an entire summer teaching myself the basics.

Other obsessions I’ve developed over the years involve baseball (why, Mets, why?), sports in general (nothing beats baseball though), real estate listings (for when I move out of Princeton eventually), adding songs to my Spotify karaoke-approved playlist, baking breakfast treats and desserts, eating breakfast treats and desserts, and taking pictures of breakfast treats and desserts. Medieval history became an obsession at some point in college, after I fell in love with Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school and realized that there were people who studied the Middle Ages as their profession.

Some obsessions start quickly and occupy a whole summer/semester (e.g. my anime phase). Some last decades. Would I have spent a nondisabled summer being academically productive, or would I have found something else to distract me? I want to say that I would’ve been more productive, but there’s really no telling. Heck, maybe I would have attempted online dating, which may have caused untold amounts of drama in my life, and prevented me from doing my work. You never know.

It’s easy to think of how the summer would’ve gone if I magically regained a fully functioning spinal cord. It’s a bit like that feeling you get when you reconsider all of the events in your life and think that things would have been better if Y had happened instead of X, even though you have no idea where Y would have led you.

Why even bother envisioning an alternative, super-productive summer in which I get things done because I don’t have any other obligations? Academic FOMO convinces you that you’re being a slacker, because your peers are all researching, traveling for archival research, or reading everything. It makes you question why you’re not at an archive, or constantly reading, even though you have perfectly good reasons for whatever occupies your summer instead.

As much as I hate to admit it, ableism may also play a role. There’s a stereotype that people with disabilities can’t get as much done as, or perform to the level of, those without disabilities. It’s why people with disabilities are encouraged to leave higher education, as was the case for one woman with multiple sclerosis who had been a student at Harvard Medical School in the 1980s. It’s why some choose not to disclose a disability while searching for a job. It’s the belief at the root of paying those with disabilities a subminimum wage. Having a disability that I clearly cannot hide means that I should be doing whatever work my nondisabled peers are doing, right? Don’t I have to fight this stereotype so that I never believe it with regard to myself? Although, gosh, even floating the notion that I could believe that about myself is internalized ableism. I need to work on that.

At any rate, my health comes first. I’m trying to strengthen a connection in my hip flexors because they’re alive again, even though my doctor said that connection would be gone forever. I’m exercising because I want to have an easier time pushing my wheelchair, and I want to avoid blood clots. I want to use my standing frame everyday to avoid osteopenia/osteoporosis. These are good reasons not to be traveling to Europe to sit in an archive for extended periods of time. I mean, if I need to go to an archive, I’ll go. It’s just not necessary right now.

I also want to keep writing about my life on this blog, because I’m the first wheelchair-using History PhD student at Princeton. In other words, this experience must be documented. Which is yet another perfectly good reason not to go into full monastic scholar mode. On top of that, a professor of mine from college told me not to take things too seriously (odd advice, I thought, because he’s one of the most intense people I’ve ever met).

But I have a limited number of hours in the day. What gets prioritized? Where is the happy medium? How do I finish the summer feeling accomplished instead of academic FOMO-ed?

I attempted to strike said happy medium this summer. Here is what has happened thus far:

  • All of the Push to Walk, FES cycling, standing frame
  • Reviving my blog
  • Reviving my Instagram because I finally decided to take pictures of my sugary habits (follow me if you’d like!)
  • Hanging out with my sister before my niece (!!!) arrives
  • Sporadic German review via DuoLingo/reading German articles about tournaments
  • The very recent creation of a “Peter Brown” word doc because I have to get through everything he’s written on wealth, poverty, and early Christianity. I have a dissertation idea, but I have to make sure Brown didn’t already answer my question. (For the non-premodern history people reading this, all you need to know about Peter Brown is that he’s kind of a big deal)
  • Dreading emailing my advisor, and planning to read more Peter Brown things before sending said email.
  • Watching the Mets on SNY and yelling at my parents’ television every time their bullpen blows a lead

So much of living with an SCI is playing the priorities game, because I am routinely at a time disadvantage (meaning, everyday tasks typically take longer). What do I need to accomplish, what is possible to accomplish, and what’s not necessary right now? This involves making lists, which I love. These lists are an attempt to dispel academic FOMO, along with its ensuing feelings of inadequacy.

Here goes: What do I need to accomplish over the next year, PhD-wise?

  • Complete three more classes
  • Pass Latin and German exams
  • Write a research paper to submit in the spring
  • Prepare for generals
  • Take generals
  • Attend all Davis Seminar talks whilst preparing for generals
  • Come up with a few dissertation ideas in the event that the language exams and generals are all passed

What can be accomplished over the summer?

  • Latin and German prep for exams
  • Prepare for generals
  • Come up with a few dissertation ideas

Which tasks necessitate abandoning my PT for traveling to archives/a language course?

  • None, really. I mean, sure, archives are great, and I’m happy that so many fellow grad students have an opportunity to get a head start/develop current research ideas. But these seem like bonus opportunities for a second-year grad student, and not expectations.  (Unless the grad student in question has a dissertation idea all ready to go, in which case, get thee to an archive!)

After listing out everything, it appears that counterfactual nondisabled Val is not required to do anything beyond stay home, read widely, and review as much German and Latin as seems sensible. Which, as you may have noticed, are the same things that disabled Val has to do. Disabled Val is, therefore, not a slacker for spending her summer at home, despite what academic FOMO spurred on by internalized ableism tells her.

Come to think of it, it’s fairly unproductive to imagine a hypothetical nondisabled version of myself in graduate school. Especially since this version, by the way, might never have gone into medieval history because she would’ve skipped the gap year in which she watched all of the Monty Python Flying Circus series. She would’ve had a roommate freshman year (the disability services office wouldn’t let disabled Val have one). This roommate might have convinced nondisabled Val to shoot for a high-paying job at a consulting firm or hedge fund. Nondisabled Val might have done this, burned out, and decided to become a roadie for upcoming Evanescence tours while she figured out her life. We just don’t know.

What was the point of this post, other than to fret over the perceived academic unproductiveness of my summer? I guess to say that, thinking about what I would have accomplished without the SCI and the PT is an exercise in futility. I don’t know what that summer would have looked like. Maybe I would’ve read everything on a sample generals reading list. Maybe I’d be fluent in Ancient Greek by now. Or maybe I wouldn’t even be in graduate school, because I would have found something else to obsess over. It’s easy to come up a multitude of scenarios, because they’re not real.

But you know what is real? This Peter Brown book on my desk. I’m going to drink some tea, and then get to work.

Peter Brown Cover
This image was in an Instagram story, but it seemed appropriate for this post because it includes the hashtag “gradstudentlife.”  Image: A copy of Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD on a table, along with a matcha latte from Cha Cha Matcha.

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