I am writing this blog post mostly as an extremely belated thank-you note to everyone in the SLab and especially my fellow fellows—Susan, Joseph, Cherrie, Tarushi, and Jennifer—who helped me get through a difficult time at the end of last year. I am also writing this to explain how collaborating to create our charter allowed me to see I had people I could go to for help rather than maintaining the toxic individualism within my personal life that made me feel miserable but safe.
Our cohort’s very first assignment in Praxis was to write a charter together that would serve as a mission statement for the group, a space to imagine what we wanted the upcoming year to be like. The charters written by previous cohorts and the SLab were models for us, and they were a large part of what motivated me to apply for the Praxis fellowship despite my skepticism towards all things digital. I could tell that the folks in the SLab were not like other academics; these DHers wrote publicly about feelings and care and I needed them to save me from my department. We talked a lot in those first few weeks about collaboration and community, and how our academic work was lacking those things. We discussed texts that point this out and suggest a different path forward, such as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons and Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. The SLab guided us through thinking about how the group would address conflict, differences of opinion, frustrations, and giving proper credit within the context of collaboration. We resolved to “love each other even when we hate each other” and dedicate time to get to know one another as people outside of our work in the SLab.
Until starting the Praxis fellowship that semester, I had not made many friends at UVa. Part of this was influenced by going through grad school during a pandemic, but it also had to do with a kind of professionalism within academia that sees anything about people outside of their academic work as irrelevant, an idea we critique in the OER we are building together. If not for our intentionality with getting to know each other and centering our whole selves, not only as professionals or academics, I would not have felt like I could have reached out the way I did.
Back in November, the weekend before Thanksgiving, there was a nasty fire at my apartment complex in Charlottesville. Luckily, the fire did not reach my unit, but I did spend several hours standing in my parking lot with my cat wondering if I was going to see any of my stuff again. My apartment filled with smoke. When the fire was out and the firefighters let me go in to grab stuff for an overnight bag, the smoke damage made it look like someone was turning down the color saturation, fading everything into black-and-white. My friend Malcolm and his roommate Thomas kindly let me and my cat stay at their apartment that night. I woke up the next morning with a sinking feeling of dread, as I knew I was facing probably at least a weeks’ worth of hard work to deep clean soot out of every object I own. I also felt guilty for feeling that way, since at least I still had stuff to clean and was alive to clean it. The person in whose unit the fire had started was not so lucky, and I found out later they passed away at the hospital. I was afraid to go back to the apartment and see what condition it was in and I realized I needed help. I decided to do something out of character for me and draft a text to the other Praxis fellows asking for it.
It was a Sunday morning before a holiday break. I had only known the other fellows for a couple of months and did not know what to expect, but I didn’t have anyone else to ask. I am still blown away by the response of all the fellows and everyone in the SLab. Within an hour, all the fellows had responded to my text and Susan came to meet me at my apartment. Every article of clothing that I owned reeked of smoke and had to be taken to the laundromat. We loaded up all my dishes and took them to Susan’s to run through her dishwasher. Joseph came, took down a list of supplies we needed, and then he ran errands all over town buying cleaning supplies and a carbon monoxide detector because I was convinced there was going to be a gas leak even though the fire department had declared it was safe to stay there. At the laundromat we had to wash all my clothes four times before the smoke smell was (mostly) gone. Susan bought oxygenated bleach and lunch for everyone. Then she and Joseph stayed at the laundromat for literally an entire day—Susan was there from around 10 am until 6 pm—washing and rewashing and drying and folding every item of clothing that I own, while I went back to my apartment to start cleaning. Tarushi and Jennifer met Malcolm and I at the apartment with more cleaning stuff and they all helped me scour everything for the entire afternoon: windows, inside of cabinets, walls, every item in my kitchen or bathroom that didn’t get thrown out had to be wiped down. Cherrie came and helped with the cleaning and brought me a pumpkin pie, chocolates, tea, and face masks, which were greatly appreciated later. That night, I was still feeling anxious and upset, so Tarushi offered to spend the night on my uncomfortable IKEA futon in my still-quite-smoky apartment so that I wouldn’t be alone and my cat didn’t have to stay at a strange house again. She also comforted me when I burst into tears, sobbing “why is everyone so nice to me?” into her beautiful long hair. I am detailing these boring, tedious tasks to emphasize how not-fun all of this was and how generous it was for these people to drop everything to come help me. Because I had all this assistance, I got the necessary cleaning done in two days. If I had stuck with my usual mindset that I don’t need anyone and can do everything alone, it likely would have taken me weeks to finish. All of this happened in the weeks before my dissertation prospectus was due, and because of their help I was able to spend Thanksgiving break completing my prospectus on time. The next day, I wrote a message in the SLab Slack to explain what had happened because I was proud of everyone for working so hard together and because I wanted to make Brandon cry. Brandon not only cried, but also started a mutual aid fund in the library to help me. Susan and Joseph refused to take any money for the stuff they had purchased for me, which was annoying. These funds were sorely needed, since my absentee landlord refused to reimburse me for anything related to this incident. As grad students reading this know, the holidays can be a difficult time financially, as money we might receive at the beginning of the semester dwindles and we have to stretch whatever is left to purchase holiday gifts and travel. Because of this mutual aid I was able to have a normal holiday, to travel home and buy my family presents and still make rent. Others in the SLab who saw my Slack message reached out to see if I needed anything. Shane brought over deodorizing room spray that provided some relief until I threatened my landlord enough to get them to complete the smoke remediation over a month later. Jeremy offered to threaten them for me (it’s cute he thinks he’s scarier than me). Going through this taught me I have people in Charlottesville that I can go to for support. This is not something I got from my department or grad school coursework.
This journey also helped me realize what a bad anarchist I had been towards myself and showed me a way towards bringing solidarity and mutual aid into my life. Due to a combination of a toxic brand of feminism and difficult relationships with my family and romantic partners, neither of which I felt I could depend on in times of trouble, I coped by adopting an individualistic mindset that left me repulsed by the idea of asking for help with anything. I would accidentally injure myself or leave critical tasks undone rather than ask for assistance in their completion. I constantly critiqued individualism theoretically, it has become impossible not to see its destruction amidst the pandemic, but I was blind to the ways it was messing up my own life. Participating in Praxis and going through this fire showed me how I could begin to undo this by intentionally building a supportive community of friends and practicing mutual aid together.
I thought about our charter when I drafted the text to the other Praxis fellows asking for help that Sunday morning. In the document, we wrote that we would aim to counter the “performance and rigor” we were all so tired of in academia and instead foreground “generosity” and “vulnerability.” When I asked that we come together as a team to help me with some messy, tiring, unfun tasks, it felt like putting our charter to the test. I was vulnerable and everyone else was generous. I am so proud of us for that moment. Thank you all, I love you.