A Year of Transitions:
Dealing with Liminal Spaces in Academia
Jasmine Mote, Ph.D.
A liminal space is one relating to transition. It is a space where you have left something behind, but you are not yet fully something else. It can also represent a space that occupies both sides of a boundary or threshold at the same time. This past year has felt like my ultimate liminal space. I am living in the midst of a global pandemic, where things are slowly improving yet the end is still not fully in view. The United States is transitioning to a new presidential administration amidst turmoil and violence. I started my first tenure track faculty position completely remotely, meaning that my work and personal spaces are one. I am in the midst of multiple academic worlds as a clinical psychologist in an Occupational Therapy department. Finally, I’m pregnant, perhaps the ultimate of liminal spaces: I am simultaneously one person and two, straddling the line between “parent” and “nonparent.”
Academic life can easily become perpetually liminal - for many, our work selves and our real selves blur and merge.It’s up to the individual to decide how much they are willing to have this type of experience. Here, I share my experiences and the values that I have tried to live during the most transitional year of my life (thus far).
Know your limits, and acknowledge that they will change
Prior to pregnancy, I could run a few miles (slowly, but steadily), clumsily fall down the stairs and just laugh it off, or eat a big plate of pasta with bolognese sauce. Now, eight months pregnant, I get winded after a 20 minute walk. A minor fall means a call to the doctor’s office. Tomato sauce gives me terrible, insomnia-inducing heartburn. My physical (and emotional) limits have changed, and I have had to adjust accordingly.
The same can be said about my transition from postdoctoral researcher to faculty member. My responsibilities seem to have tripled, and full days where I can spend writing without a meeting in sight are few and far between. Additionally, working remotely means I am trying to get to know colleagues and a new work culture from the comfort of my home desk. My capacity for meetings and other responsibilities shift as I continue to figure out (and then re-figure out) what I should be working on at any given moment. There have been several days where I needed to take a break from work to refresh myself mentally and emotionally - either due to run-of-the-mill burnout or because of the stress I was experiencing from the news or in my personal life.
Before this year, I would often find solace in immersing in work as a means to distract myself from difficult things happening in my life. I don’t think this is true for me anymore, and that’s okay - actually, more than okay, because I don’t think for me personally this was a healthy means of coping. My own capacity to do work has been different, due to the various stressors of the world as well as my fluctuating energy levels throughout my pregnancy, and it’s been a blessing in disguise to not be at 100% capacity during this formative year. I hope this is setting the stage for the future when, even if I have the capacity to do more work, I won’t automatically fill my time with every single opportunity that comes my way. It’s also been helpful for my own growth to positively reinforce students who tell me they need to take a break for their own well-being. I try my best to congratulate students on doing what they need to do to take care of themselves, which feels great to do when so much of academic life involves the opposite: complimenting someone who is able to work through their own struggles, something that is not bad by itself, but can reinforce unhealthy habits. Through trying to show compassion to students, I hope that I can get better at turning it around on myself.
Ignore the mixed messages
When so much of my life feels boundary-less I have found solace in maintaining what professional boundaries I can, such as how many articles reviews I will accept or committee duties I will engage in. People always give you the advice to “learn to say no,” which is really good advice, but it can be made more challenging when that same colleague or supervisor who gives you this advice is also the same person who constantly emails you different opportunities or service obligations. Often, a single “no” does not suffice, and there is always the worry that (especially as a woman) you will be viewed as hostile, aggressive, or difficult if you say no too many times. Academia can be filled with so many mixed messages like this, and it’s your responsibility to ignore those messages. The easiest way to do this is to know what your boundaries are and stick to them as much as you can.
Being a woman of color in academia means that these mixed messages are perhaps more frequent for me than for others. As a graduate student, I was told to speak up and advocate for myself and my needs one moment, then the next a supervisor would tell me that I should “know my place” when they viewed me as too outspoken. Everyone says it’s important to prioritize having a family in one’s career (if one chooses to do so), but then will simultaneously tell you that it is never a good time to try to have a baby (literally, at some point in my career, someone has listed every single stage in one’s academic career as the worst time to have a baby, outside of being tenured). Now, pregnant, new mixed messages come up. A colleague talks to me about how important it is for me not to do anything during my maternity leave, but then emails, asking me to do something during my leave. Someone else says, “You know, if you want to work during your leave, that’s okay, too!” which can feel like implicit pressure. Finally, we all know we have to limit how much service we can do at any given time, but that can be difficult when you’re one of the only people of color in a department - expectations are different, as are your own motivations for wanting to do more. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s not my responsibility to try to enact structural changes during my first year on a job - that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I will have plenty of opportunities to make a difference throughout my career in the ways that I choose to do so. Again, because I set firm boundaries for myself and am confident in my choices, it makes ignoring these mixed messages (somewhat) easier. As does complaining to a good friend when necessary!
Say no to the cult of productivity
Even during non-pandemic years, I know how lucky I am to have a faculty job. I fully acknowledge that having a job you love is a privilege and has so many wonderful benefits. At the same time, I also know that my job is just that: a job. Jobs that center passion as the main incentive are great, but they also allow one to be exploited more easily. Your job will never love you back. It’s so easy, particularly in a job like in academia, to get sucked into thinking that your self-worth is based on your productivity. Throughout the pandemic and various social justice and political upheavals, I’ve had numerous instances where I will log into Twitter and see all the publications and grants people are publicizing, and I’ll feel these simultaneous emotions of righteousness (“How can you work at a time like this?!”), resentfulness (“Must be nice…”), and jealousy (“I wish I could be productive right now”), all while recognizing that I live within a culture that positively reinforces productivity at all costs, to the detriment of everyone’s health and well-being.
I’m constantly in the process of learning how to give up this cult of productivity. I take breaks from Twitter when I need to. I keep a running list of all the things I’ve accomplished, big and small, not to feel as if I’ve “earned” time off or to improve my feelings of self-worth, but to show myself evidence of the important work that I do that can easily go unacknowledged if it’s not a publication or grant. I chat with my husband and close friends outside of academia to gain perspective. I am intentional about when I decide to do work after-hours or on weekends - meaning I don’t thoughtlessly look at the clock and realize that it’s 9PM and I haven’t stopped working and I haven’t eaten dinner. It has taken time and lots of practice to get into these routines. Again, a spouse that does not subscribe to an academic schedule helps with this process, as does the anticipation of my entire world being turned upside down when I give birth to my first child. I have a lot of other things to do in my life that don’t revolve around my job, which helps.
My first year as a faculty member thus far has been a rollercoaster of liminality, and that probably won’t really change in the next few years. I will go from “nonparent” to “parent” in the next few months. If I’m lucky, I will also transition from being an early career faculty member to something more in the coming years. We are always undergoing transitions, big and small. The important thing to remember is that even during times of huge transitions, while your priorities and your values may shift, you will always be you. Be confident in your choices and in yourself, and sooner or later the ground will start to feel more stable.
About the Author
Jasmine Mote, Ph.D. is the director of the Mote Emotion and Social Health (MESH) Lab and an Assistant Professor in Occupational Therapy and Psychology at Tufts University. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Oberlin College and her M.A. in Psychology and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She studies the mechanisms of loneliness and the relationship between our emotions and social experiences, with a special focus on understanding these processes in people with serious mental illness.
Twitter handle (@jdymote) and my lab website: http://sites.tufts.edu/meshlab/