Archive for February, 2016

Adventures in Death Midwifery: Introduction

Posted in Death midwifery, Dissertation, Education on February 25, 2016 by Diana S-V


skull quill

Pieter Claesz’s “Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (1628) – oil on wood. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Hello, death-friends! Long time, no see!

The past year has certainly been a busy one. I spent most of the first half of the year writing a book chapter and article, neither of which ended up being published—more on that another day—and most of the second half finishing my last teaching assistantship for the foreseeable future and navigating some non-academic adventures, like finding out that I’m expecting my first child this April and learning how to tackle the physical and financial changes that this welcome but unexpected news brought on. However, one of the other reasons that I was off the radar for the latter half of the year was because I was fortunate enough to a part of the inaugural class of Cassandra Yonder’s twelve-week core program in death midwifery.

The program was intensive on a number of levels, some of which I anticipated and some of which I was in no way prepared for. Returning to my role as a student in a virtual classroom with a heavy emphasis on community-building, frequent writing, twice-weekly videoconferences, and one-on-one dialogues was initially exhausting, especially since the first part of the course overlapped with first-trimester fatigue. The format of the course was also very different from my most recent student experiences in academia, and while from the outside it might have seemed like I was very well suited to the course format and would have no problem keeping up, I found the opposite to be true.

The traditional academic learning environment, even before the dissertation takes priority, relies more heavily on intensive periods of work towards larger tasks over long durations of time. For example, my graduate coursework consisted of several once-weekly three-hour seminars that involved an incredible amount of discussion, concentration, sustained mental effort, and connection to others in the classroom. Anyone who has ever been in a similar seminar environment knows it is as exhausting as it is rewarding, and although I needed to quickly learn that part of participating in that environment meant giving myself time to recuperate after seminars, I adapted to and thus began to thrive more easily to this pedagogical structure. Similarly, the structure of my qualifying exam year—which consisted of a secondary field exam, primary field exam, and field study—was focused on long, sustained periods of intensive study culminating in one massive exam. Four months of reading and researching was ultimately capped with four hours of writing and, in the case of the primary exam and field study, a two-hour discussion with a designated committee.

The BEyond Yonder Virtual School for Death Midwifery (VSDM for short) could not have been more different. Each week focused on a different module, each day focused on a different component or facet of that module, and expectations for fulfilling the course requirements and contributing to the community environment of the course included daily journaling, daily forum posts and conversations, the aforementioned twice-weekly two-hour teleconferences, and weekly “buddy chats” where we had the opportunity to get to know our fellow classmates and spend time talking about our time in the course. The massive differences between approaching traditional academic labour—long bouts of reading balanced by short bursts of intense writing or dialogue—and this kind of labour was a shock to my system. It became apparent to me almost immediately that I required some sort of structured routine that would allow me to not just cover the readings, discussions, and journaling but to enjoy them and actually experience the benefits of these components. Keeping up with readings was not difficult, of course, but I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be for me to find a comfortable tone and approach to the forum posting and journaling. I also didn’t realize until the first few weeks were over that like traditional academic labour, my success in this course depended a great deal on how well I took care of myself and stayed in touch with how the course content and structure affected my life outside of my studies.

Once I experimented with and got into a rhythm that worked for me—no small feat, I’m afraid, and my contributions in the first few weeks of class were somewhat paltry compared to later on in the course—my engagement with the material and with my classmates increased at a rapid rate. The forum discussions began to feel more natural and dialogic in terms of their formal elements, and I began to feel less nervous opening up about aspects of the course that were not based on the reading: my personal experiences, my affective responses to the material, my comfort levels with certain topics, and gaps in my knowledge. I also became better at targeting what I appreciated about the ideas of my colleagues, building upon those ideas where possible, and offering my thanks for and compliments on those posts of which I was particularly appreciative. The first few weekly teleconferences were a learning curve for everyone involved, I think, both on a technological level and in terms of crafting an environment in which we could all feel connected. However, after two or three teleconference, I found myself recognizing the voices of my classmates and hearing a more natural cadence and conversational tone begin to enter into our discussions. The teleconferences still involved a great deal of critical thinking, and I found it very helpful to keep a Word document open so that I could quickly jot down phrases that resonated with me or things I wanted to look up later without sacrificing my focus on the dialogue. After the teleconferences, I often took an hour or so to decompress and take care of myself after such heady and sometimes personal discussions. This habit was something that I continued throughout the course, and was something that I found my classmates (as well as our fearless leader, Cassandra) encouraged one another to do.

Indeed, that self-care became an integral part of what we might call the “hidden curriculum” of the course was something for which I was very grateful. I quickly observed that as with other emotionally and mentally taxing forms of labour that involve direct contact with people and their stories (psychoanalysis, therapy, social work, birth doula work, hospice and palliative care work, anything in human resources, stewardship in labour organizations, and innumerable positions in activist, front-line care, and community organizations) the work of learning about death and dying, and sharing our stories with one another, was very much work, even if it didn’t always feel like that when we were in the thick of things. It became even more important to me when I started realizing that it was important to have a pulse on my need for self-care based on the topic of my dissertation and various projects that I have taken on.

I began to reflect on certain occasions in my career during which I had been quite ignorant of the effect of my research topics on my emotional and mental well-being, and the ways that I could have taken better care of myself at those times. For example, I became quite physically ill and exhausted after a weekend of preparing a conference abstract on the topic of the circulation of collectible lynching photographs in mid-nineteenth century America. I also suffered a number of symptoms (insomnia, anxiety, and an increase in depressive thoughts) that I now suspect were partially psychosomatic when I was researching and writing my article on executed inmate’s last statements and capital punishment in the summer of 2014. I have noticed that today, as I work on my dissertation topic, there are days when I recognize that the contents of my reading or writing for the day call for more self-care than on other days, and I am more willing now to take steps to address this while still maintaining a steady work pace. Prior to the course, I was not nearly as adept at this kind of reflective work, nor was I willing to take steps to address self-care in relation to my dissertation topic.

All in all, even a few weeks into the course, I was already undergoing some major meta-cognitive adjustments that, while occasionally frustrating and requiring no small effort, were already benefiting me within the course as well as supplementing my skills outside of the course. I was being asked to examine and re-evaluate the relationship that I had with myself as a learner, as a researcher, and as a communicator, and the end result was a better awareness of how my time within the university—especially my first two years of graduate school—had influenced my strengths and weaknesses in these areas.

The course also jolted me out of what I now recognize as a rut or groove that wasn’t really serving my approach to my work on the dissertation. In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about what I think the root cause of this rut was, how I first became aware of the death midwifery movement, why I chose to take the VSDM course when I did, and how my involvement with the movement got my dissertation back on track.