Master’s Thesis

This account raises a question that I initially (and tentatively) discussed in “Promise”: Is losing one’s voice an inevitable byproduct of academic training? While my academic training gave me useful tools for making sense of my experiences and understandings, it also disciplined me to think in rigid and narrow ways and use specialized jargon that was alienating to non-academics and that made it difficult to think (or express) how theories I was reading connected to my life. 

But, even as I believe that the ways I was disciplined within the academy contributed to my inability to express my own ideas, have my own voice and demonstrate that “there is a person here” within my work, I can’t just blame my academic training for my failure to bring myself into my work.  As a private person, who likes to be in control of the image that I present to others, maybe I’ve been afraid to risk revealing too much about myself.

I suppose part of my current (and future) intellectual journey is to find effective and powerful ways to position myself within my work and to be willing to be more than a removed scholar/thinker who hides behind theories and critical analyses of others’ ideas. 

Longing to Belong: Feminism and the Desire for Identity
Advisors: Dr. Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher and Dr. Karen Baker-Fletcher
Completed: October 1998
Proposal: Download PDF
Thesis: Download PDF

MAIN QUESTION: How do we reconcile the need to make identity claims with the need to critique those identity claims?

Building off of work that I had been doing in my coursework, especially the classes I took from Dr. GK Baker-Fletcher, I used my master’s thesis to critically explore a question that intrigued me as an academic who appreciated postmodern critiques of identity and subjectivity and moved me as a person struggling to make sense of my own identities and sense of belonging. Academically, I was interested in giving serious attention to Judith Butler and her interrogation of the limits of identity and identity politics. Personally, I wanted to read this interrogation, along with Carole Boyce Davies’ exploration of migratory subjectivity, in relation to my experiences of moving around a lot as a kid.

In section five of my proposal, I outline how I will incorporate my personal investments into the project:

This final section will focus on how we desire identity—and how a desire for identity can be reconciled with the problems of asserting identity that Butler and Boyce Davies each offer. In particular, I will look at my own experiences and what the notion of desiring identity means to me. Drawing upon my experiences of displacement and migration, I will discuss my desire to balance this subversion of identity and this promotion of identity as fluid with an understanding of the specific instances of identity claims and the need for commitment to certain identities.

The discussion of my own desires for belonging, home and identity, didn’t make it into the final draft. This omission is not surprising to me. Throughout college and graduate school, I had difficulty finding my own voice and connecting the theories I was analyzing and interrogating to concrete personal experiences. Part of this difficulty was immaturity. Part of it was academic methods that encouraged me to speak “objectively” and universally. And part of it was an unwillingness or resistance to making myself vulnerable in my writing.

After re-reading my thesis, I found one paragraph in which I (as a person, not an objective theorist) makes an appearance. This might be my only appearance.

When viewed from my perspective, the tension between rest and resistance can be seen in a different way than either hooks or Reagon.  Whereas both hooks and Reagon articulate the position of Black women who have not easily been granted the safe, comfortable place of rest, but have instead had to struggle to create it out of seemingly impossible situations,  I have, as a White, middle-class, educated woman,  had access to the comfort and security of white privilege.  This is not to say that my experiences have always been ones of comfort and safety. Instead, it is to suggest that when exploring the tension between rest and resistance, I must address the fact that creating a safe space in which to rest and be restored varies according to one’s experiences and privilege within the dominant hegemony.   In my future exploration of identity and identity categories, I will work to develop strategies that enable me to deal with the complexities of rest and resistance from my privileged perspective as I struggle to find a balance between my desire to belong and to feel safe and comfortable and my strong need to actively resist identities that exclude and totalize women.

Why didn’t I put this at the beginning and use it to shape the various ways that I read Judith Butler and Carole Boyce Davies? I guess I wasn’t ready to do such difficult work, yet. I recall struggling throughout my masters with how to confront and negotiate my white privilege and to deal with the racism that was ingrained into many of my perspectives and my training, up to that point, as an intellectual. I’m sure that was a big part of my unwillingness here.

But, there’s more going on with my omission of any personal accounts than just a reluctance to address my racism and white privilege. I was also struggling with how to find my voice and to articulate my experiences within a system and environment that prioritized knowing an ever-increasing list of theories, authors and schools of thought over engaging with those ideas and giving serious attention to how they move us or unsettle us.

A few years after writing this thesis, I tried again to connect academic critiques of identity and home with my own personal efforts to negotiate a longing to belong with a need to critique. This time, my project was not an academic paper or an assignment for class, but two digital videos, completed with my husband Scott Anderson, about my family’s farm in Upper Michigan. While I did receive summer funding to work on them from Emory University and I did present on them at academic conferences, they were created outside of the academy. I think that these two videos were more successful (but still not completely successful) in taking larger questions of identity and belonging and applying them to my own experiences. 

I wonder, after writing this last paragraph, am I suggesting that it’s easier for me to find and express my voice outside of the academy? How “truthful” is this assessment? How much of it is a result of my current in-between state, outside of the academy? Is this above account helpful for making sense of why the academy doesn’t work for me, or is it more of a justification for why it’s okay to be outside of it?