By: millie.rooney | August 02, 2015

The Asparagus Revolution took place on the 19th of May, 2015; a great uprising in defence of dignity and integrity threatened by insecure tenure.  It was a day when I finally got a grip on my life and remembered that at heart I am a fighter and that it was time once again to take up the challenge. And you know what? Life post revolution has been better than it’s been in a long time…


But I’m getting ahead of myself, before the revolution there was the long march through what some in the academic arena know as ‘Shit Valley’. The emotional awfulness of the conditions in which I work has become so much a part of me that these days I struggle to articulate it. Thankfully in a lucid moment some months ago, I wrote it down:

I've cried before work twice this week. I didn't want to go. I'm sick of going to a workplace where passionate people have become machines driven by funding cycles, pushed by stressed managers. There is a sense of despair and desperation and people seek to grasp some kind of vague resemblance of job security (which in my department seems to be defined as having your promised contract signed within a week or so of your previous one expiring - that is of course if you are lucky enough to get a contract renewed, or lucky enough to get a contract at all). I'm sick of knowing, deeply, intensely, that the machine that is the university doesn't give a shit about me. That it won't fight for me. That, like an abusive relationship between a husband and wife, it is going to screw me for all I've got.

This morning I vocalised for the first time how traumatised I feel by my PhD. My husband, holding me while I sobbed, reminded me that I hadn't done the PhD with an intention of it leading anywhere. I'd begun it because I'd had a passionate interest in the world and because I loved the indulgence of bathing in the research process.


And he's totally right. I didn't do it to become an academic. I didn't do it because I thought the paper and the title would be useful. And I certainly didn't do it in order to become less confident, less capable of self-motivation and I absolutely did not do it in order to feel so completely and utterly disposable and worthless.


It turns out that doing a PhD can be an amazing thing. It stretched me. It challenged me. It provided me with a haven when things got difficult at home. I got to indulge in my own interests. But once you finish? I never expected the price to be so high.


Just to make clear, I did love doing my PhD. And I fought hard to love it. I told myself "This is too hard not to love" and so I fought to make my workplace happier and brighter. I fought to create a social cohort of other PhDs. I started reading groups and writing groups. Sometimes they worked for a while.


But the instant I handed in I lost any capacity I had to love the process. I lost the adrenalin rush I had been running on to make the whole thing ok.
And I crashed. Big time. For the first 6 months after submission I struggled to get out of bed. I struggled to do the washing up. I couldn't self motivate to save myself. Thank goodness for ABC iVIEW.


A year on and I still struggle. I've been watching a friend go through an abusive relationship and I've realised that my relationship with the tertiary education sector is   not so different. Sure, it was all honey(ish) at first. But not now they've got me. They keep me in this relationship with crumbs from the table. A smattering of lectures to give here, a few thousand dollars or so to research there, a little bit more teaching, an irrelevant job uploading information to the website because I'm 'young' and therefore must know about technology (FYI my mobile phone is not even a touch screen and it turns of when the weather is too humid).


The department I have ended up in doesn't even have a cake day and the hierarchies are so strong that as a casually employed nobody, no one in the tea room has bothered to introduce themselves. Message: I am not worth talking to.

Obviously, my discontent had been stewing for a long time. I joined the masses of other disillusioned junior academics, muttering under our breath in a quiet hubbub of general discontent. I try to remind myself to be truly grateful to have a job. A job that is actually good for people and planet and in a team of incredibly intelligent, passionate and kind women. I know I am lucky to be able to pay the bills and to receive the type of pay that I do. But that doesn’t make my unhappiness any less real. I kept a weather eye out for an opportunities to “break the lease” on my habitation at the university in search of better real estate in which to house my intellect. Like a renter who knows the home will soon be renovated to house a more worthy tenant, I lived in the squalor of my office without bothering to commit to the place.


It was Barbara Kingsolver who handed me the spears for revolution. In her beautiful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she writes about planting asparagus in the yard of every house she has ever lived in – no matter how long she planned to live there. I remember this resonating when I read it, thinking what a powerful act of hope and humanity it could be. Asparagus takes at least three years before it produces anything edible. So anyone who plants it does so in the knowledge that they themselves may not reap the benefit, indeed it may be that with no one to continue to care for it no one gets to eat the asparagus. But the very act of planting and caring and nurturing is a hopeful act, and that in itself can be of benefit, that act of hope is an act of retaining and containing dignity of the self.

And thus the seeds of the Asparagus Revolution were sown. I thought, why limit our gardening activities to planting only food for our bodies, why not plant asparagus for the soul? Why not invest ourselves in our communities and workplaces despite of and because of our short term tenure.


So on Tuesday the 19th of May, 2015, I put on the cap of revolutionary and led the charge. I marched into the office and shouted “Ladies! Today is the day we plant asparagus. Viva la revolution!”


And so we did. We took ourselves out to coffee and strategised. We returned to the office and spent the day shaking things up. Desks were moved, bookshelves were dusted, papers were chucked and dignity was reclaimed! We may not be given these things by those who manage us, but we can give them to ourselves.


I want to explain that this revolution was in part triggered because I told my friend Andrew that I felt trapped and unable to use my skills. I said “All I need is a part time job, something to anchor me, so that I can then do the community building I do by stealth”. He looked at me, peering beyond the tears and said, very gently, “Millie, maybe you’ve been given what you asked for”.


Shit.


He said, “Maybe this is it, it’s just really fucking hard”.


Shit.


And he was right. I needed to step up. I needed to commit to my workplace. I mean, how long had I been suffering the indignity of the horrid taste of cheap teabags refusing to unpack my extra-special place making tea pot? I honestly thought that the dissatisfaction I felt at work would contaminate my tea pot, momentarily forgetting it's powers are stronger than that.


For so long I harboured resentment against the university and its dysfunction. My resentment and frustration came from the fear that if I can be strong enough to resist and to exist with integrity then the university wins, they get the best of me and their abusive institution benefits. But then I realised, so what? If the university really gets the benefit of me being here, if they really notice what I do, it means that I win. Or maybe the next tenant will be nourished by the crop I plant.


Long live the Asparagus Revolution.

Category: General 

Tags: work, community building, place 

Comments:

Madisyn Marlin

Posted on : February 21, 2018

and I am absolutely going to bring some tea leaves and a teapot to work too!


Allen

Posted on : August 10, 2015

Love it Millie. Robyn and I always planted a Robyn Gordon Grevillea in every rented house we lived in - once again it was mostly those who came after who enjoyed the flowers. I hope they enjoyed them anyway. It's also like our habit of planting a tree (or several) when someone dies - an idea of looking to the future. Life passes and then there's still more life.
The Asparagus Revolution is a much more eloquent expression of my 'making decisions'. When all seems to be out of control, when stuff just seems to happen, there's an art to deciding to be a conscious decision maker. 'Yes I know stuff's happening to me but by gods I'm gonna decide as much as I can about how I respond to said stuff.' Suddenly I'm much more in control.
Looking forward to seeing a conversation develop. Also looking forward to disagreeing with some of it!


Millie

Posted on : August 03, 2015

I'm so glad that you have a pretty good workplace Jacqui! And I definitely think you should take a teapot to work. Life is too short for teabags :)


Jacqui

Posted on : August 02, 2015

Excellent! Also, beautifully expressed

I think the futility of post-PhDdom can be almost worse than intra-PhD struggles. But I'm so impressed by this initiative :) ... and I am absolutely going to bring some tea leaves and a teapot to work too!

I am fortunate that even amid the stress of it, in my line of work, my boss and clients do sometimes show their appreciation - and what an impact it makes.


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