A Pedagogy of Unwellness

Mimi Khúc interrogates the myth of meritocracy, ableism in the academy, and mental health's insistence on wellness. 



Dear reader,

I don’t write books. I make cool shit: unclassifiable hybrids that break genre and form to give us something we didn’t know we need: tarot cards, curse-casting advent calendars, hacked DSMs, mental health pop-ups.1 What I make is as much about play as reading and thinking, as much about feeling as understanding, imbued with the too-many feelings I have and know that others share. Theorise pain, but make it fun, and healing.

Academic books are not fun or healing.

This is an excerpt from a book that pretends to be an academic book. It’s not an academic book in that it doesn’t do what academic books do. It’s unconnected to tenure or other forms of academic advancement. As a permanently contingent scholar, I don’t have to write a tenure book. I have no way of getting tenure, a forever foothold in the academy, nor do I want to. Tenure books are the mechanism by which new scholars demonstrate their worthiness to be accepted into the academy writ small and large. Tenure books follow rules that uphold academic hierarchies and value systems. There are entire industries teaching new scholars these rules. This book doesn’t follow those rules.

But the book is an academic book in that it does what an academic book should do: intervene in academic discourse, evaluate received knowledges, critically assess knowledge production, revolutionise higher ed pedagogy. It does these things with the further step of examining the academy itself as a central site of that knowledge production—and the work of decolonising mental health. It just does all of this academic labour in weird ways.


But the book is an academic book in that it does what an academic book should do: intervene in academic discourse, evaluate received knowledges, critically assess knowledge production, revolutionise higher ed pedagogy. 


Its genesis was Duke University Press editor Elizabeth Ault asking me if I was working on a book. “Why, yes!” I answered. Now I am, I thought to myself. As an adjunct, and because I found academic books a whole lot of not-fun, and because I couldn’t imagine a scholarly press being capacious enough to value my work, which is artsy and irreverent, I had never considered writing a scholarly book. Until Elizabeth asked. Which made me ask myself: Do I want to write a scholarly book?

The answer was yes. Sort of.

In your hands is an excerpt from the only kind of scholarly book I would want to write. It is a work on mental health that draws on and intervenes in Asian American studies, a work of critical university studies from the vantage point of a disabled, unwell Asian American adjunct. It is a pedagogical treatise that reframes teaching and knowledge making as transformative care projects, a disability studies and disability justice grappling with our collective unwellness. It is also a book full of stories and feelings, both mine and yours, as you’ll see. Theory in the flesh, mine and yours, so that we find our way through this thing called Life. We plumb what we know and feel, together. This book is a plea and a prayer that we all survive. It is a letter—to you, and my partner, and my daughter, whose name graces the cover. It is a letter to Asian American students, Asian American studies, Asian American community. It is a letter to help us imagine a future worth living in. It is a call to feeling. It is grief and hope together. It is an exit strategy.

dear elia can only do all these things by opting out of the academic book as genre and the tenure book as initiation and the university as good-faith project.

So here is a scholarly book that is an extension of my hybrid arts project on Asian American mental health, Open in Emergency, a sustained engagement with the same crucial questions that animated that first project: What hurts? And how do we go on living while it hurts? Through my conversations on mental health with students, scholars, artists, organisers, and community since Open in Emergency’s publication in 2016, I’ve realised that we all needed more time and space to ask and answer these questions. Elizabeth asked me, “Why a book now?” The honest answer is that I needed more time and space to dwell in these questions as well. An academic book that is not an academic book is the right form for this dwelling: time and space to directly engage questions of how we know what we think we know, while forcing us to face why we feel what we feel.2

Open in Emergency has its own thrilling life in the world now, beyond me, but I start with the story of its making so you and I can build a foundation together of what it means to do mental health work. You may think you know what mental health is, but I’m here to tell you that what we’ve thought mental health is all along is actually killing us. It is part of what hurts. The book’s central intervention is quite simple: the existing industry and scholarly understandings of mental health are part of the problem, and we need new frameworks to better identify and tend to our unwellness, together. To say it another way: we need to move away from the medical model of individual pathology toward a model focusing on larger structures of unwellness. Another way: psychology, psychiatry, clinical psychotherapy, university counselling centres, and popular discourses of wellness and self-care are all failing us, and their chief failures are along the axes of race and ableism. Or yet another way: dear elia offers something I call a pedagogy of unwellness, the understanding that we are all differentially unwell. By this I mean that we are unwell in different ways at different times, in relation to differentially disabling and enabling structures, and so we need differential care at all times. This is a disability studies, disability justice, and ethnic studies approach I developed while thinking specifically about Asian American mental health, but one that has grown outward to encompass an entire way of being in the world. A pedagogy of unwellness tells us that being unwell is not a failure, that our unwellness is not our fault, that we live in a world that differentially abandons us, that because of these things we deserve all the care imaginable.3


To say it another way: we need to move away from the medical model of individual pathology toward a model focusing on larger structures of unwellness. 


The book walks through the making of Open in Emergency, as well as its theoretical and formal interventions, in order to lay out this pedagogy of unwellness and begin exploring what that approach makes possible. The book goes on to trace the trajectory of my mental health work since OiE’s emergence. It reflects on what students have told me during my speaking tour across the country about their experiences at their respective universities—about what hurts, what they need, what they dream of. I would venture to say that I have visited more universities and listened to more students—in mental health workshops, discussions, meetings—than anyone else in Asian American studies or mental health over the last six years. It is a dispatch from the field, a travelogue reporting on the state of student mental health, and Asian American student mental health in particular. It is also a close reading of the university as structure, revealing the cruel irony that university “wellness” makes students unwell. The book also examines the particular shape of Asian American suffering crafted in the Asian immigrant family. I reflect on what it has looked like for me over the past decade to try to teach thousands of Asian Americans about this shape, best learned through erin Khuê Ninh’s work on the cost of raising model minorities, and how to imagine our way out of it. erin’s work and my students’ engagement with it over the years make clear there is a kind of Asian American parental love crafted and enacted in the merciless confines of model minoritisation—and it kills.4 The chapter from which the following excerpt is based takes a closer look at the academy itself, locating unwellness in the story of meritocracy that we as professors have all imbibed and inflicted upon ourselves and each other—a story of racialised ableism that I argue is best told from the academic margins. Adjuncts are both the gears and waste product of the academic machinery, and we are all unwell because of it. Finally, the book reflects on how my teaching has had to transform during the COVID-19 pandemic, responding to what I felt was an ethical mandate to deepen access and care in the classroom in times of crisis. I apply a pedagogy of unwellness to the classroom itself, examining my, our, attachments to particular forms of teaching and locating those forms in ideologies of merit and rigour and, yes, ableism. What we were all doing in the beforetimes was not all that accessible—or humane. Creating true access and care in the classroom requires some drastic upending.

Interludes dispersed throughout the book draw on the materials and insights of Open in Emergency to guide you in nurturing the kind of mental health we all need. This book itself is an expression of a pedagogy of unwellness, enacting for you, reader, the kind of care it describes. Its form invites you to explore your own unwellness alongside Asian Americans’ and engage in new forms of care. Together, the book asks you to sit with the question of what hurts, dwell as deeply as possible in Asian American unwellness, turn your gaze to structures shaping that unwellness—race, ableism, the university—and generate new understandings of what it means to care for ourselves and each other in a world that makes, and keeps, us unwell. I write letters, to you and others, in the hopes that we can figure out how to move through this world together in all of our unwellness and not feel alone.




The Professor Is Ill

Dear colleagues,

We seem to think we can take our CVs with us to our graves. Like our students, we are unwell, though most of us won’t admit it. We are afraid to be unwell, afraid of not being enough, afraid of not only failing in the academy but revealing the “truth” that we never succeeded into belonging in the first place. I teach my students to interrogate “success” and “failure” in their lives, and they throw themselves into this hard, transformative work. My colleagues, though: you refuse with a vehemence that is both laughable and bewildering. You need to know that the only way to survive the academy, to figure out how to make the conditions of your life liveable, is to begin with the recognition that you are unwell. That notions of academic success and failure, especially for faculty of colour, especially for Asian Americans, constitute a high-stakes gambit that makes us sick. We are dying excruciating, premature deaths, like our students. And even more so than our students, our dying might be accompanied by applause: we’ll be lauded for our achievements all the way to the grave.

I am unwell. Elsewhere, I wrote about dwelling in that unwellness in Open in Emergency, and in my teaching and speaking since. Let us now dwell in the unwellness engine that is the academy. Let us look at our unwellness as scholars and teachers, together.5


We already know the university is not kind to those of us who are sick.6 We also already know the university is not kind to those of us from vulnerable communities.7 Some of us know that the university is not kind to an underclass of workers it has created: adjuncts.8 What most of us don’t want to admit aloud is that the university is ableist and racist in more insidious ways than just those. The university is killing us not simply by preying on our vulnerabilities. It is killing us not only by denying access and policing bodies, but also via what it asks us to aspire toward. The university is killing us through wellness.


The university is killing us not simply by preying on our vulnerabilities. It is killing us not only by denying access and policing bodies, but also via what it asks us to aspire toward. The university is killing us through wellness.


Let me back up for a moment. In the academy, we as scholars are producers, of knowledge, of teaching, of publications, of institutional service. We are weighed and measured at all times for our quantified “contribution.” Academia is a frenzy of quantifiable production, documented in number of publications, number of citations, number of grants, number of invitations, number of committees. Our CVs read as absurdly long, desperate lists that we hope present the totality of our achievements and convince others (and ourselves) of our worth.

Academic hyperproductivity across university strata is a kind of unrelenting dehumanisation that relies on the conflation of that productivity with wellness. But for scholars, wellness is woven together with meritocracy in particularly lethal ways. Wellness is not just productivity but achievement. Wellness for us is the ability to achieve, accomplish, at the highest levels of intellectual inquiry and institutional positionality. Wellness becomes conflated with success, structures of access and inaccess conflated with individual merit.

We live and work in a machine that makes us unwell while not allowing us to be unwell and punishes us for being unwell and asks us to punish others for being unwell so that we can prove we are well.


We live and work in a machine that makes us unwell while not allowing us to be unwell and punishes us for being unwell and asks us to punish others for being unwell so that we can prove we are well.


Let’s do a self-care activity that I assign my students. List five things that you appreciate about yourself—that are not related to productivity or achievement.

1. ____________________________________

2. ____________________________________

3. ____________________________________

4. ____________________________________

5. ____________________________________

Was that difficult? My students have always found the directive to avoid productivity challenging. They don’t know how to value much else about themselves, especially in the context of school.

Now for comparison: List five things you appreciate about a loved one in your life.

1. ____________________________________

2. ____________________________________

3. ____________________________________

4. ____________________________________

5. ____________________________________

Now share this list with that person! And then ask them to share five things they appreciate about you in return.

How many of the things that you listed for your loved one were related to productivity or achievement? How many of the things they listed for you were? I’m going to guess very few. My students report that their loved ones’ lists look very different from the one they write for themselves, and this is startling to them. Their loved ones (at least some of them) often value them very differently from how they value themselves. And they value their loved ones very differently from how they value themselves.

How do you value yourself? How do you value yourself as a scholar, an academic, a professor?

Another activity I do with my students: I ask them, “What is a good student?” Let me ask you now: What is a good professor?

I’ll be a bit more precise: What does your field, your institution, your department think is a good professor? What do you have to do and be in order to be a good professor, to your colleagues, your university, and academia broadly?

Let’s actually make a list. I’m serious. Write it down.






Now looking at this list, answer me a final question: Can you be sick and be a good professor? In other words, can you be disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent, traumatised, exhausted, grieving, depressed, anxious, and/or overwhelmed and still do all those things you’re supposed to do to be a good professor?

If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to consider being a bad professor.


Those of us in the academy, especially those in the increasingly tiny tenure stream, are the ones who made it. We are the smartest, the most productive, the most accomplished, the successful ones. We worked hard to be here. We earned our place.

These aren’t exactly lies. But they aren’t exactly truths either.

Ethnic studies critique has always revealed the lie that is meritocracy. The world is not structured for success by merit or will or hard work. Meritocracy is a sacred myth, a story we tell ourselves in order to make invisible our social stratifications and the violences directed at the most vulnerable for the benefit of the least vulnerable. Our inculcation into meritocracy happens everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more deeply than in our educational systems.


Meritocracy is a sacred myth, a story we tell ourselves in order to make invisible our social stratifications and the violences directed at the most vulnerable for the benefit of the least vulnerable. 


For those of us who have “made it” through the educational systems, especially against the odds, it is hard to remember that merit does not structure achievement. It is true that we worked hard, maybe twice as hard. It is true that we deserve to be here. It is not true that we simply merited our way to success. We all know of brilliant scholars of colour, women scholars, queer scholars, disabled scholars whose hard work hasn’t been enough to make them successful in the academy. (We all also know plenty of mediocre how-are-they-even-here?! scholars.) We watch our fellow colleagues “fail”—not finishing their PhDs, not getting jobs, being stuck in the adjunct underclass, not getting promotions or tenure—and we distance ourselves from them. We got our PhD, our job, our tenure, our promotion because we worked hard, we earned it, we deserve it. The corollary we conveniently forget: we imply that our failing colleagues didn’t work hard, didn’t earn things, possibly deserve what’s happening to them. They weren’t cut out for academia, we think mostly to ourselves but sometimes out loud to each other too.

While I was finishing my PhD, I read Karen Kelsky’s blog on The Professor Is In religiously for its advice on how to write a cover letter, how to write a teaching statement, how to write a research statement, how to interview for jobs, how to apply for postdocs and fellowships. In the years following, her blog turned into an academic coaching business, then into a book, now into a podcast and an expanded array of webinars, courses, and individual coaching services, under the organising umbrella of The Professor Is In: Guidance for All Things PhD: Grad School, Job Market, Careers in the Academy and Out. I think every single one of my academic contemporaries in the last decade knows of The Professor Is In. Most have read at least an article or two of her advice, many relying heavily on that advice during their years on the market. Her advice has been particularly helpful for those of us unfamiliar with the academy and its many unwritten, unspoken rules. She told us what the rules were.

Full disclosure: I anonymously guest posted for her once in 2012 on mental health and the academy during my postpartum depression recovery process. It was the beginning of my own writing journey and the beginning of my work identifying structures of unwellness.

Looking back now, I cringe at all the advice on her blog that blurs the line between strategic essentialism and internalised racialised ableism. Advice on how to navigate the terrible process of going on the market can quickly turn into reification of that process and its implicit and not-so-implicit values. It can also quickly turn into a meritocratic success formula: do these things, and do them right, and you will get that job! Kelsky doesn’t explicitly promise the job, but she’s running a business, and what is it that people are buying if not a path to academic success? The testimonials make this particularly clear: a client who, after five years on the market and 325 applications, finally landed their dream tenure-track job in their dream city; another who learned to “respect [themself] enough on the market to get what [they] want”; another who became confident enough to “take the reins and drive the offer negotiation process.”9 The messaging here: Kelsky offers the skills one needs for academic success, and if you don’t learn them, you will fail. Implicit is the corollary: if you are failing, it’s because you’re not “respecting yourself” enough or “taking the reins” enough or doing enough of any of the myriad pieces of advice new PhDs get.

What is that advice? Most pieces are well intentioned, seemingly helpful, or even crucially necessary. But beneath each is the subtext that there are right ways and wrong ways to be an academic, and that all those things are within your control. Let’s look at some of the advice I’ve heard over the years:

What we say:

And what it means:

1. Before you go on the market, publish at least one article, the more the better, in peer-reviewed journals. Don’t waste publications in anthologies.10 Don’t do projects that aren’t legible for tenure.

Publishing is the most important thing to show that you are tenurable and have value to the university. Your value is in your publishing. Your value is tied to the prestige of the publication. If you work on things that aren’t legible to the academy, you are wasting time and energy—and it is your own fault then if you don’t get that job or promotion.

2. Apply widely, market yourself widely.

Apply to dozens of jobs, all over the country. Apply for jobs for which you barely fit the description. Apply for jobs at small schools in the middle of nowhere, far from any family or friends or support networks. Apply for departments and universities that are predominantly white, even historically hostile to people of color. Be willing to be the only Asian American/Black/Latinx/SWANA/Indigenous person in that department (or university!). Don’t set any boundaries for yourself or prioritise your needs over getting a job, any job. Don’t complain if you have to move. Be grateful you have a job.

3. Say yes to everything in interviews.

Pretend you can do everything. Because you don’t have value unless you can do everything. Don’t complain when they actually make you do everything. Be grateful you have a job.

4. Keep trying! You can do this!

If you just keep trying, you’ll get that job! This is a meritocracy—try harder, try longer, and eventually it’ll work out! You deserve a job, so you will get one! Those who can’t get jobs don’t deserve them.

5. Don’t tell them you’re pregnant or plan to get pregnant. Don’t tell them you have children.

Getting pregnant or having children makes you a liability to the university—you’ll have to take time off, you won’t be as productive, you won’t be as tenurable. Having children makes you less valuable as a worker. Your academic work is more important than your family life; you are your work, not a whole person with identities and responsibilities outside of work.

I’ve heard this advice from colleagues of all genders and all ranks. This is about as basic as it gets in terms of sexism and the motherhood penalty.

6. Wait until after tenure to have kids.

Tenure is the most important thing, and having children at the wrong time is potentially destructive to your career. Focus on your work, your publications, in these pretenure years. You have to structure your family life around the academic calendar and career trajectory. If you don’t, it’s your own fault if you fail.

7. Don’t tell them you’re sick or need accommodations.

Being sick or needing accommodations is a weakness. It demonstrates that you are a burden to the university and your colleagues. You need “special” exceptions that are “unfair.” You should need nothing beyond what is offered, what is “universal.” You should be well, at all times. Being unwell is unprofessional. Being unwell is a failure.

8. You have to really want it.

The fuck? I’m not even going to dignify this one with a close read.

9. Teach a little to get experience. But not too much, lest they think you’re just an adjunct.

Don’t be “just an adjunct.” Work hard to stay out of that underclass. You don’t belong there. Unless you fail, and then maybe you do belong there.

10. Be tenurable.

Show that you can produce scholarship, at the correct rigor, amounts, and frequency. Show that you will be able to do this no matter what, and that other obligations will not get in the way. Show the department, college, university that their investment in you is worth it.

11. Be professional! In clothing, in speech, in emailing, in social etiquette.

Be middle class, white, straight, able bodied, neurotypical. Preferably cis male. Learn to perform these things at all times so you can prove you belong. Failing to perform any of these means you are choosing unprofessionalism and therefore don’t belong.

12. You’ll be fine!

As advice given to a new PhD, this might be the most innocuous of them all. But what it means:

Smarts are what it takes to get a job, and you are smart enough, don’t worry. You deserve to get a job and tenure, so you will. Those who don’t get jobs just weren’t smart enough. When you don’t get a job, maybe they were wrong and you just weren’t smart enough too.

What is intended as reassurance places both achievement and failure at the individual’s feet. It neatly erases all the barriers, uneven junctures of access, and forms of suffering in the job process, gaslighting us into believing those things don’t exist, didn’t happen, only happen to others.

As new PhDs languish on the market over several years, especially if they are adjuncts, the advice gets more aggressive and more anti-adjunct:

13. Just keep trying! Don’t give up!

What does “giving up” mean here?

If you give up, you must not have really wanted it. Or you just weren’t good enough.

14. Don’t adjunct for a department you want to get hired in as tenure track. It will permanently track you as an adjunct.

We recognise adjuncts form a second-class tier, but one we think we can meritocratically stay out of. It is natural(ising): those who are there, after a certain amount of time, must belong there. If you don’t belong there, make sure to do everything you can to not get mistaken for one of the people who do. Teaching is second-class work; do not get labelled as “just” a teacher. 

15. As you adjunct, make sure you continue being interesting and tenurable. Keep publishing to show you’re not just an adjunct.

Keep writing and publishing even while applying to dozens of jobs and spending three or four months of the year being on the market, while also teaching two to six classes a semester, sometimes at several different universities. If you don’t keep up your publishing, you’re not proving your tenurability. You’ll become stale, and then you won’t deserve that job anymore anyway. 

Graduate students and junior faculty need to learn these fundamental rules of higher education, don’t they? They need to know how the academy operates so they can successfully navigate it. They need to professionalise. Knowing the above, doing the above, gives them the best chance possible not to wash out of academia. This is mentoring. Right?

What was so alluring to me about The Professor Is In and other forms of professorial career advice was that they gave me a window into a world I had not had access to before and had never learned the rules of, as a child of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, not the first in my family to go to college but definitely the first to pursue academia. Academia (and its particular forms of whiteness) was a foreign language I had to quickly, frantically learn during my years in graduate school. These professionalising resources made that language accessible.

I cannot deny that these resources can be lifelines, especially for students of colour. Especially for those facing a paucity of mentoring. But the well-meaning advice of “here’s how things work” and “what you should do” turns into “what you must do” turns into “what you’re not doing and that’s why you’re failing.” It’s a slippery slope—one that graduate students and new PhDs and even junior faculty, in their desperate attempts to sustain a foothold in academia, consistently descend.

The advice on writing and promotion demonstrates this descent even more starkly. The Professor Is In offers a writing webinar called “Unstuck: The Art of Productivity,” a “self-directed course devoted to changing your writing habits and getting your work from stalled to submitted.” The focus of the month-long course is identifying your “negative habits” and then creating new, better ones. It “challenges you to examine your writing process, identify your mental roadblocks, apply those insights to creating a new skill set, and finally practice those skills in a way that overwrites your old patterns.” The main obstacle to your productivity, this course argues, is your own mentality: your own lack of desire, bad habits, and bad brain wiring. All you need to do to become extremely productive is “rewire your brain,” “break through being stalled and get to submitted.” Individual problem, straightforward individual solution. Implied: since the solution is so clear, if you don’t do this, well, it’s your own fault if you’re not writing. I won’t deny that there are many feelings and narratives surrounding writing, and that processing what writing means to us is an important thing to do—this chapter actually is trying to do just that. I won’t deny that reorienting our relationships to our work would contribute greatly to our mental health—this chapter is trying to do that as well. But I am wary of a model that individualises both problem and solution, and holds up hyperproductivity as a given ideal. (A testimonial claims that in the eight months after taking this webinar, the scholar was able to easily complete three articles and one book chapter!)11


But I am wary of a model that individualises both problem and solution, and holds up hyperproductivity as a given ideal.


A source for writing support that many faculty of colour have turned to in the last few years is the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development. Brainchild of founder Kerry Ann Rockquemore, NCFDD is an independent professional development business offering workshops, coaching, and mentoring for faculty of colour, designed to help us achieve our highest potential as academics. Its mission is to teach faculty of colour “how to thrive in academia” and help us “achieve extraordinary writing and research productivity while maintaining a full and healthy life off campus.” This is especially important for junior faculty of colour; NCFDD fills the gap in mentoring they often face.

A lot of people love NCFDD. So brace yourself for this next part.

The National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development operates on a subscription/membership model, meaning individuals and institutions can pay annual fees to have access to its resources. Let me repeat: individuals and institutions can pay annual fees. Individuals and institutions are very different animals. As an adjunct, I recognise this difference most sorely, because I as an individual am never securely attached to an institution and the resources to which affiliation might give access. Every university is different in terms of what resources it allows adjuncts to access (and access easily). As contract-based teachers, we have access only for the duration of our contracts. There is no guarantee beyond the term of a contract, and even if you know they’ll offer you more classes, semesterly contracts create gaps in institutional affiliation even when consecutive, and these gaps have consequences in terms of access (to libraries, professional resources, course pages, even buildings and email accounts). Full-time faculty can make use of their institutional membership in NCFDD easily; contingent faculty cannot. Individually an adjunct would have to pay hundreds of dollars to access annual resources, thousands of dollars for the specialty professionalising program. For some of us, that is equivalent to an entire semester’s income. Full-time faculty not only have more, steady income to pay these fees, NCFDD offers a discount for institutional members. Plus full-time faculty often have institutional funding to cover professional development anyway. The difference in structural access and privilege is mind-boggling. But wait, it gets worse: the specialty program NCFDD offers is actually only for tenure-track and tenured faculty—contingent faculty can’t access it even if we have the money.

Let’s look at what NCFDD actually offers. An annual membership gets you access to webinars, multiweek courses, online discussion groups, weekly motivator emails, and its Core Curriculum. Its signature twelve-week intensive Faculty Success Program, for tenure-track and tenured faculty only and available for an additional fee, aims to help you “improve research productivity through intense accountability, coaching, and peer support.” All of the offerings are grounded in NCFDD’s focus on four key areas:

1. Strategic Planning

2. Explosive Productivity

3. Work-Life Balance

4. Healthy Relationships

Its Core Curriculum further breaks down these four key areas into ten key skills that revolve around time management, making plans, reprioritisation, setting boundaries with colleagues, and building a professional network of mentors. These skills seem particularly helpful for becoming more intentional about managing our time, taking more control over the things that demand our time, and souping up our overall executive function skills.12

I have to admit that I would benefit from more planning, better time management, more organisation, better boundaries. Perhaps it would help me feel more in control of my life, less overwhelmed. Here is that slippery slope again: the skills I need to better navigate the academy easily become reification of the academy’s systems, its structures, its values. This is a model of hyperproductivity and meritocracy: learn how to work better, more efficiently, so you can produce more. Find resources so you can succeed—without questioning what we mean by success (defined by the institution) and what that kind of institutional success extracts from us and others in the ecosystem (tenured versus adjunct). Follow these guidelines for “explosive productivity”—that phrase alone should make your skin crawl—without regard to differential capacities and limits. Learn these skills and you can produce in the right ways, amounts, and frequencies. The fourteen-day writing challenge in NCFDD’s program, for which you commit to writing every day and engage “accountability” by checking in with your small groups on your progress, assumes a universal able-bodied, normative-minded, neurotypical scholar-worker whose only obstacle to becoming more productive is motivation and the lack of a writing habit. In this model, there is no room for unwellness, disability, and neurodivergence. There is no room for doing work in different ways, with different goals and different priorities that don’t align with the institution’s. There is no understanding of the varied and fluctuating demands you might face, say, if you are a parent or caregiver. This model seems to make room for some needs in its desire to support “healthy work-life balance”—but I am just as skeptical about this nebulous idea as I am about productivity-defined success. What counts as “work” and what counts as “life” and what relationship is allowed between those arenas? What is “balance” and who gets to say it’s been achieved? What is a “healthy work-life balance” when you are unwell? In other words, can you be sick, disabled, traumatised, depressed, neurodivergent, and follow this structure and find “balance” in academia? Does this model account for unwellness that is not temporary, curable, aberration? Does it acknowledge the ways the institution’s demands actually harm us? It clearly doesn’t recognise that we should never see “explosive productivity” as an ideal. It clearly doesn’t recognise that telling someone they should “write every day” is ableist bullshit.


Here is that slippery slope again: the skills I need to better navigate the academy easily become reification of the academy’s systems, its structures, its values.


Repeat after me: the advice to “write every day” is ableist bullshit.

It is ableist because it presumes not only that everyone has the ability to do this but that everyone has the structures in place to enable this kind of writing. In fact it makes invisible the structures that are necessary to enable writing, such as financial stability, resources for research, emotional support, tech support, professional validation, child care, time, spoons, therapy, a cat, not a pandemic, someone to cook and clean and do the fucking laundry—implying that writing is simply an individual act of will and habit. It makes you individually responsible for your lack of productivity. It makes you feel like a failure when you can’t manage to write every day. It makes every day guilt and failure laden. It makes you unwell and tells you it’s your fault.13

I’m also concerned that The Professor Is In and NCFDD, in addition to being unintentionally ableist, run the risk of being unintentionally exploitative in a specifically racialised capitalist sense. They are creating markets for their services by naming and codifying “failure” and “success” in ways that amplify anxiety built into the myth of meritocracy, then charging those who most need help but can least afford it, most often those QTBIPOC outsiders without other access to these unspoken rules. Yes, The Professor Is In and NCFDD are providing services to fill a need for those disadvantaged in the academic system, but anyone doing this must continually ask the hard question of whether inclusion by way of teaching the vulnerable how to navigate a deeply flawed system is for the sake of the vulnerable, the system, or the teachers. They run the risk of creating more of that need, growing a market for their business—because let’s be real, these are businesses—and pushing all of us to meet ideals that they unquestioningly uphold and reify and press upon the most vulnerable. And it is the most vulnerable who will feel they need these services the most, paying disproportionate amounts of money to access what they’ve been told they so direly need, compounding greater anxiety with greater financial precarity.

Let’s say it all works. You followed all the job market advice and landed that dream tenure-track job, and now you’re working your ass off being “explosively productive” and taking names on the way to tenure. Or maybe you already have tenure, and you’re rising in the institutional ranks at your university. You’re a success, and that means something important to you. Perhaps success means that you’re a good person, that you’re worthy, that you belong. Perhaps it means you got out. Perhaps it means you’re different, special, better than those who haven’t succeeded. Perhaps it means you’re safe.

But the time of personhood is endless, we already know. Just as the Good Child requires continual performance, so does the Good Professor.14 You have to keep proving you belong. You have to keep proving that you have earned everything you have achieved, that the merit continues to be yours. If it was hard work that got you there, hard work must be what will keep you there.

Remember that there are never-ending ways to fail. Even when you meet the benchmarks of success, maybe you didn’t do it fast enough or easily enough or often enough or rigorously enough—there are always others who seem to be succeeding at all this better. You have to continuously keep failure at bay because failure at any moment would mean you never belonged in the first place. Failure would mean you’d be discovered for the fraud you are. Those of us already in the margins of the academy whose belonging is always under question, we feel this terror most keenly. We have to believe the story of meritocracy for ourselves because deep down we are terrified that we don’t actually deserve to be here. We are terrified that we will be discovered as impostors and then everything can be taken away from us. We live in perpetual precarity, even at the highest levels. Because deep down, we know the institution does not want us.


We have to believe the story of meritocracy for ourselves because deep down we are terrified that we don’t actually deserve to be here. 


For Asian Americans, believing in meritocracy and following a narrowly delineated path to success is old hat. The model minority formation dogs our every racialised step in the United States, and it is no surprise to discover academia has its particular version.15 It is no surprise it is hard for us to disinvest in this version of our story; the stakes have always felt so high, the rewards so valuable.

It is also no surprise that in our investment we visit meritocracy’s violence upon those around us and those under us.

Faculty, especially tenure stream, are tasked with the administering of academia: teaching and evaluating students, evaluating each other, hiring and firing. For faculty, it is easy to think that our job is to weigh and measure students and colleagues for their individual achievements, to evaluate their merits. It is easy, even satisfying, to demand from those under us the kind of dehumanisation we ourselves have endured: we went through this; this is what it takes to make it in academia. In fact, demanding this helps to prove our own worth. We were able to survive, even advance, under these conditions—this proves we belong. This kind of suffering is given meaning through the narrative of meritocracy and neoliberal achievement. Violence as rigor, wellness as success, unwellness as failure.

Meritocracy is a whip across our collective, intergenerational psyche. We forget that our students, our colleagues—we—are human. We forget that they and we are whole people, and that whole people are broken. A pedagogy of unwellness acknowledges that we are all differentially unwell—breaking in different ways at different moments in our lives, with different and shifting relations to structures of unwellness. Do we as scholars know this about ourselves? Do we know all the ways in which we are broken by the structures in which we live?


A pedagogy of unwellness acknowledges that we are all differentially unwell—breaking in different ways at different moments in our lives, with different and shifting relations to structures of unwellness.



Let me ask this another way: What would it take for you to stop pretending that you always have your shit together?


Here are all the ways in which I’m a bad professor/scholar/academic, for your reading pleasure:

        I don’t read much.

        I write sporadically, sometimes go full years without writing.

        I always turn essays/articles/chapters in late.

        I don’t apply for grants or fellowships.

        I don’t answer emails quickly, or sometimes at all.

        I lose track of emails, forgetting which ones I need to respond to and by when.

        I don’t prep for teaching. I don’t do my own readings.

        I miss deadlines. I forget to register for things, forget to renew memberships, forget to apply to things.

        I don’t publish regularly. I’ve published one peer-reviewed journal article, ever.

        I don’t cite well, or enough. I also never remember or follow citation style guides.

        I don’t attend department or university events. I rarely go to colleagues’ talks. I register for things and then don’t show up.

        I forget to respond to my students’ emails, sometimes timely ones related to class assignments.

        I cancel class, several times a semester.

        I turn grades in late.

        I let my students call me by my first name, let them turn things in late, sometimes not at all.

        I don’t read my colleagues’ books. I don’t keep up with the latest books in my fields.

        I write my conference papers the week of, sometimes the day of, and lately I just recycle something I wrote before.

        Actually, I don’t even really present research at conferences anymore. I barely even attend any conferences. When I do, I don’t go to any panels.

        During the pandemic, I have been even worse about all of these things. I didn’t do any reading, writing, speaking, or administrative emailing for most of 2020. In the summer of 2020, I didn’t work academically at all.

(Consider this your academic Rorschach: Which of the above made you squirm the most?)

But I don’t (usually) feel like a failure. Or a bad scholar. Or a bad teacher. Or a bad person. In fact, I often feel like a success: a good scholar, an amazing teacher, a pretty darn good human. I am thoughtful and caring, ethical and discerning. I take care of myself, my colleagues, my friends, my students, my children, as much as I can. I am generous, and feelingful, and expressively joyful. I am fucking hilarious. I think hard and feel hard. I create, when I can and when I want, how I can and how I want. I cultivate joy, with great intention, for myself and others. I rest. A lot. I laze about as much as possible, and that perhaps is one of my greatest successes. I am lazy as fuck, and I luxuriate in it.

I call this Sloth Professoring.



Mimi Khúc, PhD, is a writer, scholar, and teacher of things unwell. She is currently the Co-Editor of The Asian American Literary Review and an adjunct lecturer in Disability Studies at Georgetown University. Her work includes Open in Emergency, a hybrid book-arts project decolonising Asian American mental health; the Asian American Tarot, a reimagined deck of tarot cards; and the Open in Emergency Initiative, an ongoing national project developing mental health arts programming with universities and community spaces. Her new creative-critical, genre-bending book on mental health and a pedagogy of unwellness, dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss (Duke University Press), is a journey into the depths of Asian American unwellness at the intersections of ableism, model minoritisation, and the university, and an exploration of new approaches to building collective care.


Mimi Khúc, "A Pedagogy of Unwellness," and "The Professor is Ill," in dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss, pp. 3–24 and pp. 89–145. Copyright 2024, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the Publisher.  

Banner image: Cover from Mimi Khúc's dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss. Copyright 2024, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. 
Home list image: Tarot cards from The Asian American Tarot (2016–24). Courtesy of Mimi Khúc. Photo: Noel Mones. 



1. See the Asian American Tarot in Open in Emergency, the AALR Book of Curses, the DSM: Asian American Edition in Open in Emergency, and interactive one-day arts-based pop-ups I’ve organised with universities and community orgs such as Harvard University’s History and Literature programme, the New York City chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF), and Richmond Area Multi-Services (RAMS) and Kearny Street Workshop in the Bay Area.

2. I employ dwell here as a mode—and temporality—of being and knowing. What can we learn when we stay in a time/feeling/experience that we are usually encouraged to flee from? In thinking about Asian American settler relation to indigenous sovereignty, I want to differentiate my use of dwelling from one of belonging by way of ownership. This dwelling is not about land and property but about time and affect, a kind of relational staying that I hope can be aligned with indigenous sovereignty. I also want to point to the work of Crystal Baik, Vivian Truong, Amita Manghnani, Diane Wong, Lena Sze, Minju Bae, and Preeti Sharma, who developed the concept and language of “dwelling in unwellness” as a mode of collective writing about grief and pain during the pandemic. Their creative-critical essay by the same name beautifully outlines the theoretical, affective, literary, relational, and care work that their dwelling engages—and kicks us all in the gut with both their vulnerability and their invitation to the reader into vulnerability. Like this book, their essay leaves spaces for the reader to write in the text! And while they draw on my work for the language of unwellness, I’m pretty sure we each came up with the language of dwelling independently but simultaneously somehow! See Baik et al., “Dwelling in Unwellness.”

3. Jim Lee’s term “pedagogies of woundedness” resonates deeply with my concept of a pedagogy of unwellness. Jim asks what we can learn when we look at our and others’ woundedness—illness, death, suffering—and the ways we narrate these wounds. In fact, Jim’s commitment to looking at woundedness has greatly informed my own; he has always given permission to those around him to feel and hurt as much as they need to. For that space, and for his friendship, I am eternally grateful. Lee, Pedagogies of Woundedness.

4. Ninh, Ingratitude.

5. I want to point again to the work of Crystal Baik, Vivian Truong, Amita Manghnani, Diane Wong, Lena Sze, Minju Bae, and Preeti Sharma in theorising “dwelling in unwellness” during pandemic times. Baik et al., “Dwelling in Unwellness.”

6. See Price, Mad at School; Price, “Time Harms”; Dolmage, Academic Ableism; Brown and Leigh, Ableism in Academia; Kerschbaum, Eisenman, and Jones, Negotiating Disability.

7. For a large collection of the experiences of women of color in the academy, see Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent; and Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent II; and for women more broadly, see Garvis and Black, Lived Experiences of Women in Academia. A quick search about just Black women’s experiences in the academy will render hundreds of articles. Academic hostility to motherhood is well documented, generating books such as Evans and Grant, Mama PhD; and Connelly and Ghodsee, Professor Mommy, both part testimonial, part survival guide. See Valverde and Dariotis, Fight the Tower, for a recent collection documenting Asian American women’s experiences in particular, and see Ferguson, The Reorder of Things; Ahmed, On Being Included; and Ahmed, Complaint!, for how universities have incorporated diversity and “disruption” and the cost of these processes for the most vulnerable.

8. See the plethora of op-eds and essays in news outlets about the plight of particular adjuncts, “The Death of an Adjunct” from 2019 possibly garnering the most attention recently. In fact, adjunct death is so prominent that there’s actually another essay titled “Death of an Adjunct,” this one from 2013. Harris, “The Death of an Adjunct”; Kovalik, “Death of an Adjunct.” A quick Google search shows an alarming number of pieces on adjuncts living in tents, living in cars, turning to sex work, and relying on public assistance. I’m aware of some tenure-track scholars writing and thinking about adjunctification and exploitative labor in academia; for example, Nick Mitchell’s essay “Summertime Selves (On Professionalisation).” Poet Truong Tran has published a searing book of prose poetry in response to his years of exploitation and mistreatment as a Vietnamese American creative writing adjunct at San Francisco State University—to significant backlash by those in power at sfsu. Tran, The Book of Other. For analyses and advocacy, see Keith Hoeller’s collection of proposals for addressing adjunct exploitation, Equality for Contingent Faculty, and the organisation New Faculty Majority, which advocates for equity and academic freedom for contingent faculty ( The stories and ideas are out there, but I have yet to encounter an analysis of adjunctification through the lens of mental health and the structural and differential unwellness of the university—and the lens of ethnic studies in particular.

9. The Professor Is In, home page, accessed November 2021,

10. This one I remember comes directly from one of The Professor Is In’s posts from when I was finishing grad school in the early 2010s, though I cannot find the particular post now.

11. The Professor Is In, “Unstuck.”

12. National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development, home page, accessed October 2021,; National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development, “Institutional Membership”; and National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development, “NCFDD Core Curriculum.”

13. In another essay, I reflect more on a model of enablement for writing that allows for—even expects—unwellness; see Khúc, “Writing While Adjunct.”

14. See Ninh, Ingratitude; and my discussion of the Good Child in chapter 3.

15. Again, see Ninh, Passing for Perfect, for our collective orientation toward the success frame and model minoritisation.




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