I’m distressed that academic conventions seem to preclude, or at least discourage, acknowledgment that the work I will present to my dissertation committee is not, properly speaking, mine.
“My” project involves spiking seawater samples with methyl mercury. My background is environmental health, not analytical chemistry. I don’t have the skills to handle methyl mercury safely. It’s dangerous stuff. In 1997, Karen Wetterhahn, a seasoned inorganic chemist at Dartmouth College, died after spilling a few drops of dimethylmercury onto her gloved hand. I have contracted with Brooks Rand Labs in Seattle, WA. Technicians there take the risks for me.
In fact, they do much much more. Staff at Brooks Rand Labs has given me tips for things I’d overlooked in my literature review and even shaped my study design. They are collecting the seawater from Puget Sound, filtering it, homogenizing my samples, centrifuging them, taking the measurements, and documenting the results. My role is that I had an original idea, found money from student loans to pay for it (thanks to my financial aid department staff and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation), and will write up the results in a way the situates them in the broader public health context. For my efforts, I will receive a PhD (Insha’Allah). For theirs, they receive a paycheck.
Brooks Rand Labs was surprisingly forthcoming when I asked them what they made: the techs, most of whom have a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, earn $37,270/year, more for managerial-level staff. Is that really adequate compensation for risking one’s life for science? How can I share the rewards with them in proportion to their contributions?
My classmates and I mulled these questions. What part of our work is ever ours? How do we make our co-workers visible? How do we thank our co-workers in meaningful ways — not just empty gestures like symbolically linking to them online? Should we accept academic honors and credentials at all, knowing that we are standing in for the work of others? We don’t have answers, but we have stories and role models.
We remembered together the late Adrienne Rich, who was offered the National Book Award in 1974. According to R. Baird Shuman’s “Great American Writers,” instead of accepting it as an individual, she called to the stage Audre Lorde and Alice Walker (who had also been nominated) and together they accepted the award on behalf of all women.
My professor, Joy Ackerman, reminded me of these words from compline, an Episcopal prayer said at bedtime: “Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil.”
Perhaps cultivating gratitude is one piece of the solution. When I was an exchange student in Japan, my host family taught me to say the word “itadakimasu” before eating anything. There is no exact equivalent in English. I believe that “I gratefully receive,” or “I acknowledge what I am taking,” comes closest. Itadakimasu can also be used to express appreciation for any gift that feeds the soul. Yoshimasa Machida’s essay, “Thank You Nature For This Meal,” resonates with my understanding of this practice of gratitude.
I recently led a reflection with my classmates , where we closed our eyes and tried to name all those for whose support we wish to say itadakimasu. We began with our families, our teachers and mentors, our research librarian (the award-winning Jean Amaral), those whose ideas laid the intellectual foundation for our research…then my colleague pointed out the obvious, “This will never end. The list just keeps expanding the more we think about it.” Exactly.
In closing, my classmate Hilary Booker’s favorite quote from Martin Prechtel: “… you go around trying to give back what fed you in your time of need. But that’s no good. Not because you don’t owe us, which you do, but because you must remain in our debt… every animal, plant, person, wind, and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else…To get out of debt means you don’t want to be part of life … The idea is to get so entangled in debt that no normal human can possibly remember who owes whom what, and how much.”
Sasha Adkins and Antioch New England’s Spring 2012 Environmental Studies Dissertation Seminar participants. Thank you, Paul, for the title.