Pictures and the Stories They Tell

The pictures on the walls tells a story. In my department portraits lined the long hallway leading to the busy student lounge. All were large, about half the size of a poster. Most were black and white photographs, with a few in colour, and a couple of oil paintings.

The pictures were of the deans of the department. It commemorated and celebrated their hard work in starting and maintaining such a prestigious department. No doubt it massaged their egos as well.

The people usually smiled in their portraits. Yet, I never felt the warmth implicit in their expressions. You see all the pictures were of white men. And of one white woman. Walking the gauntlet of their faces I always felt cold.pictures and the stories they tell 2

The students in my faculty reflect the multicultural reality of Toronto. So half of them are Indigenous, Black or other people of colour. None of us were reflected in the large pictures on the wall.

The pictures were a cultural dissonance in the department. In all our classes we address the core foundations of critical studies. That is we read, talk and write about how gender, race, and class, shape our worlds. Yet, each time we trekked to the popular lounge it was along a wall lined with mostly dead white men. The art collection clearly illustrated who had the power, and who mattered.

The picture were changed over the summer. On my first trek up to the lounge this term colour bubbled from the staid walls. They were filled with landscape paintings by Indigenous artists. I liked the colours, the nature scenes and the play of mythical characters.

Students paused to look at the pictures. They commented on which was their favourite and what was the meaning of the characters. People noticed.

The previous art collection memorialized and celebrated the dominance of white people in Canada. The new collection is a reminder that the country is an ancient land. It had a long past before European colonization. The new pictures show that it has a new future – one based on acknowledging the true owners of the country.pictures and the stories they tell 3

Sailing on a Half Moon

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Where You Sit and What it Says About You

Where do you sit in the classroom? In school I always sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher. The first time I entered a PhD classroom I chose my seat well – the one in the side row at the back, where I was least likely to catch the professor’s eyes.

I preferred it when someone was on either side of me. It was a chance to get to know new faces, and more importantly, they were a good buffer between me and the professor. If I sank low enough in the chair my sidekicks hid me from her view.

I tried to get the same seat each week. It was a familiar and safe spot.

In another class I switched seats each week, partly to see if it made a difference and partly just to meet new people. Well, some students were rather annoyed by this. It seemed as if particular chairs were reserved in their name, in ink that only they could see, and that I had pinched it. It got me thinking why they were so upset and why I was more comfortable sitting in the same spot in class each week.

The answer lies in status quo bias. According to psychologists it is the human tendency to prefer things, ideas, people or positions that are familiar versus trying something new. Change carries risks and takes mental energy. Adhering to the status quo is so much easier. In my grandmother’s words it is better to stick to the devil you know than the one you don’t know.

The status quo bias seems to be our default position in a whole range of situations. It certainly is so when it comes to choosing an Internet provider. The current one is expensive. A month ago the condo sent out a flyer encouraging all to sign up with a cheaper company. The front desk staff said half of the residents had done so, and were pleased with the result. I had thrown away the flyer. With so many things on my plate and the stress of the PhD, I did not have the energy to make the switch even though it was considerably cheaper. This morning I promised the front desk guy I will switch before the month is out. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Black people don’t do outdoors. This seems to be another status quo bias. For a whole ton of reasons we see the outdoors as a white space where we are out of place. I canvassed my Black meet up group to see who would like to try camping for next year. Most of them giggled, shook their head and said why on earth would they want to do that? A few were interested. It is camping for one night only. On a site with flush toilets and showers. It is moot how many will actually come.

Status quo bias is inherently conservative, but it can be challenged, and hence changed. If there was more advertising showing Black people in the outdoors it would change the perception that we don’t belong.

The keeners in my PhD class were spread all around the room. I expected them to bunch up at the front. Where one sits does not does not seems to stereotype the chatterers, at least for graduate students. Back in high school the front rows were reserved for the nerds, keeners and talkers. The middle rows were for the masses. The slackers, the clowns and the daydreamers preferred the back rows.

Sitting up front has no effects on grades according to research. It is just as well. I like my seat on the far side in the back of the classroom. And yes I do get annoyed if someone snags it before I get to class.

Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Ugly Buildings Kills Ideas

It is big, squat and ugly. I am talking about the building that shelters my academic department. It is twelve floors of Brutalist architecture that is more like a fortress than a place for producing knowledge. The concrete and brick entrance is as pretty and inviting as a dungeon.

Entering the building does not put me in the mood to study – I am more tempted to turn right around and go back home. I will get to know this building well as I have four years of a PhD ahead of me. The lecturers, the seminars and meetings will all take place in this drab colossus.

Zaha Hadid where are you when we need architecture that is memorable and a feast for the eyes? I love the fluid curves of your Heydar Aliyev Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House. Oh, I just remembered – you are dead.

I quickly pass through the ground floor of the building, busy with students lining up to buy tea in the café, or chatting in loud groups on the fake leather black sofas. The students look so young. Many more people mill around the bank of elevators waiting for them to arrive. There are eight elevators, but they never seems enough for the fidgeting crowds.

Most days I head for the lounge on the twelfth floor.  What a difference a view makes. The lounge has glass walls on three sides and is flooded with natural light. Looking outside I get a bird’s eye view of Toronto. What strikes me is how green the city is – trees line the grid pattern of streets in every direction.

Psychology studies show that a natural view is not just pretty, it calms the mind and encourages focus. Living walls are the latest trend in office architecture – a wall of real plants changes the energy in a space for the better. The lounge has the next best thing – a view of the thousands of trees in the city.

Half of the lounge has high desks, with hard chairs arranged in strict rows. They are filled with students glued to their laptop screens, most with headphones on. Their message is clear – serious people are at work, do not disturb. I wonder how many are watching porn as they work.

The straight line furniture is too modern, too industrial and too cold for my taste. Psychology backs this up too – straight edges are less appealing. Straight lines in a windowless room are deadly for the soul; therefore, I refuse to get a student office. I had a meeting in one of these rooms; it had as much personality as a prison cell.

The seats at the opposite end of the lounge encourage lounging. The furniture is full of curves and arranged in semi-circles. The seats are soft and covered in fabric. The walls, carpets and furniture are all in shades of blue, grey and cream. These colours are relaxing and trigger creativity.

Plopping down, I look out the window and watch the clouds skipping in the sky, playing hide and seek with the sun. The CN Tower shimmers in the distance. Behind it Lake Ontario fades from cobalt blue to grey as it meets the horizon. Over the next two hours I constantly glance at the view. It encourages me to study.

When I am comfortable at home – a cup of tea handy, a treat of fresh dates on plate and jazz on the radio – and don’t want to go into that ugly university fortress, I remember the view from the twelfth floor window. Its open expanse of sky, trees and horizon, is enough to get me to go there.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

“What on earth am I doing here? I don’t understand a word of what they are saying.” The thoughts hammered in my head as I looked around the room. Everyone looked younger and smarter than me.

I chose my seat well – the one in the corner, close to the exit, at the back of the room. My confidence was as high as my toenails – and I had forgotten to paint them.

The speakers spoke without notes. I heard them talk of the wonderful opportunities in the department, the encouragement to discuss ideas and to be part of an academic community.

I sat with my arms folded trying to follow them. My head throbbed. I must have made a mistake. My wonderful research idea seemed rather silly now as I could not follow the speakers’ words.

“Why on earth did I want to go back to school at mid-life?” Other things were an easier way out of my mid-life crisis – skydiving; anonymous sex, lots of it; volunteering at the dog shelter. But I had tried none of those. Instead I chose to study for a PhD.

Professor this and professor that gave speeches. I recognized some of the names – they wrote the articles and books that I read and cited in my application. I never expected to meet them in the flesh. My confidence toppled to the floor – I could not think of a single question to ask them.

One professor asked about my thesis. She stopped me half way through saying she remembered the application and was glad to see that I had made it through. I thanked her, she was just being kind I thought.

The other students tried to reassure me that I was in the right place and would soon pick up the lingo. It seemed easier to learn Sanskrit, Ancient Greek or Cree. I slunk out of the room.

The imposter syndrome is quite common among first year PhD students, I later learned. We are used to being seen as egg-heads, geeks or nerds, but now we feel like fakes – seemingly smart on the outside, but stupid inside.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London