Through this account, I explore one of the key questions that haunts me as I try to remember and reflect back on my undergraduate years: What happened to all of my academic promise? I also uncover a tension within my own efforts to make sense of my experiences, a tension between a need to be critical of my experiences within the academic industrial complex and a need to honor the passion for learning and engaging with ideas and theories that was at least initially fostered within the various academic spaces that I’ve inhabited.
While looking through my files, I found my final evaluation for my senior thesis:
￼I loved writing that thesis. It was my introduction to some of the debates concerning definitions of “woman” and to the tensions between feminism and postmodernism. Since it was an honors thesis, I worked on it for the whole year. I remember (and so do my roommates; they just jokingly reminded me about it a few months ago) carrying a big gray file box around with me as I went to my senior ￼seminar or to the library. What an academic nerd! I thrilled at being exposed to so many new ideas and exciting debates. And I deeply appreciated how much time I got to spend on researching, writing and revising. Thinking back to those heady days of burgeoning academic nerdiness, I wonder: what happened? Why don’t researching and writing academic essays thrill me anymore?
I’m struck by the first line of the evaluation: “This was, without a doubt, a very strong thesis. Indeed, we could not remember one in our experience that was stronger.” Am I living up to the promise of that thesis? Sometimes this question haunts me, like when I look through my old academic papers or the three filing cabinets, jam-packed with hundreds (or more?) of academic articles from 10 years of grad school and 6 years of college teaching, that I’ve barely touched in over a year. So many years of dedicated research and thinking
intellectually academically about religion, ethics, agency, subjectivity, feminist theory, resistance, subversion, queer theory, pedagogy, etc.. What was it all for and why have I stopped?
finding and losing my voice
Maybe because it was also so many years devoted to researching and writing about other people’s (not my) ideas. My academic training, while incredibly useful for getting me to think critically, logically and deeply about others’ ideas and theories, also contributed to my inability to connect those ideas and theories to my life (or, lived experiences, in feminist academic-speak). And it made it very difficult for me to cultivate and express my own voice.
Is losing one’s voice an inevitable byproduct of academic training? I’m not sure. For me, ultimately it was. My early days in graduate school were incredibly helpful as I learned how to read faster and with more depth. And those days were invigorating as I was exposed to so many revolutionary ideas about the patriarchy, gender and moral development, heteronormativity, white-privilege, radical democracy, intersectionality, hegemony, storytelling, power, and postmodern subjectivity. I finally had language and concepts for making sense of my experiences and perspectives. It was powerful, for example, to learn that moving from elementary school to junior high and literally losing my voice (often refusing to speak up in class or order my own food at a restaurant) was a well-documented phenomenon for adolescent girls as they struggled with the demands of learning and performing increasingly rigid and oppressive gender roles. Being introduced to all of these concepts and theories and then discussing them with others was exciting and empowering.
But, at some point, all the theories and jargon I was learning and the methods I was using for engaging with them, were making it harder for me to talk with my family and friends. They were also making it harder for me to make sense of my own life and experiences as I struggled to reconcile what theories told me about identity or selfhood and how I actually experienced them in my daily life.
After completing and screening the first video, The Farm: An Autobiography, in 2001, we created another one the next summer, The Puotinen Women. This video, which was a continuation of themes and questions raised in the first one, also focused on the contradictory roles that women played in Finnish immigrant households and was heavily shaped by the miscarriage I suffered just before we started filming.
These two digital videos enabled me to experiment with communicating my ever-increasing feminist theoretical knowledge to audiences outside of academic spaces. And, they allowed me to use these theories to make sense of my relationship to the farm and generations of Puotinens. These videos reminded me that theories weren’t just abstract ideas and academic knowledge wasn’t just academic! They could help me understand and connect with my family and heritage.
Due to the success of those digital videos, I briefly considered shifting the focus of my dissertation so as to include them. But I didn’t. I can’t remember the thought process that went into that decision, but I imagine that I was reluctant to subject my highly personal work to the rigid (and often stultifying) demands of academic scholarship.
the demand for rigor
Of course, some teachers/mentors encouraged me to find my own voice and to link my research to my experiences or investments, especially in my women’s studies courses. But, even as these professors encouraged me, the dominant academic culture, with it’s aversion to “I” statements, its love of theoretical sophistication, its loathing of clear and pithy expressions and its need for safeguarding “rigor” and “high standards,” reminded me that to be a serious scholar required a (nearly) comprehensive knowledge of a subject (jargon, key theories) that you could eruditely articulate on demand. Usually during class discussion or when posing a “question” during a post-presentation Q & A at a lecture. In my efforts to achieve this level of understanding, I didn’t have time to devote to my own ideas, especially when those ideas were so often at odds with other academics’ ideas and approaches.
When I look back at this chapter, and reread my section on livable life, I don’t see any evidence of the pain and fear that I was experiencing on that day. No footnote referencing my own powerful connection to the concept, serving as an intervention into the “academics as usual” prose. But, I know that Butler’s theories about the livable life, and my critical engagements with it on that day, and the days to come, was crucial in enabling me to survive that horrific month when my world shattered.
Who pushes the agenda of dominant academic culture? It’s not just administrators or professors. It’s also other graduate students. I remember feeling the effects of graduate students policing during my Ph.D program, especially in my philosophy classes. But, it wasn’t until I began teaching graduate classes at the University, that I witnessed how deeply entrenched many graduate students are in dominant academic culture. In fairness, the need to find a job in an increasingly dismal market, demands that graduate students not only follow the academic rules but uphold them for the future of their chosen field of study (and their future as academics).
thinking too much, producing too little
The more I practiced academic methods—always citing sources, thoroughly researching topics, never making unsubstantiated or over-generalized claims—and the more I became enamored with sophisticated, complex and abstract theories that presented interesting puzzles to solve and play with, but not always viable or concrete solutions, the less I was able to develop, communicate or practice my own ideas.
There wasn’t enough time for new ideas; I was too busy (and usually having too much fun) tracking down sources from footnotes or making sure that I was familiar with the literature on every new idea I was encountering. And, with my love for logic puzzles, I was more invested in finding neat and clever ways to understand and pose theoretical problems than I was in thinking through their practical implications and applications.
From the minute I started writing on the blog, I loved it. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I probably wrote more in that first month on the blog than I had written in the three years prior to starting it. And I was having fun. Finally, I was taking all of these theories that I had been learning since 1995 and not only applying them, but infusing them with my own perspectives and ideas! I was playfully experimenting with my own writerly voice and working to connect various parts of my life with my academic work. My passion for researching and writing was back!
Pushing up at the Limits
After falling in love with blog writing, I worked to incorporate it into my scholarship. I continued writing on my blog and using it in my classes. I also began researching blogging and its potential value for feminist and queer ethics and pedagogy. I developed workshops on using blogs to manage teaching and researching. I experimented with combining my less formal blog writing with my more formal academic writing. And I co-authored a book chapter on feminist pedagogy and blogging. All of this researching and experimenting built upon the feminist and queer insights that I had been encountering since beginning my masters program in 1996.
I constantly experienced resistance to my ideas and projects. This resistance was not overt, but subtle. It mostly involved a refusal to take the work (and it was a lot of work!) seriously. After all, the message seemed to be, it wasn’t “real” academic work. This resistance often belied an underlying sense of fear about what my new approaches would mean for the future of scholarship. One day, after presenting a workshop on teaching with blogs and blogging while teaching, a colleague came up to me and said that my presentation was great, but it made her glad that she was retiring soon. Keeping up with all these technologies was too much work. Later that year, another colleague quickly dismissed my ideas about the potential for using blogs to share and collaborate on writing and researching projects by stating that she wasn’t willing to share her paper with others for fear that they would steal her ideas.
How could these, and other colleagues, not see the tremendous potential in digital scholarship for enabling us to energize and make relevant our work, I wondered. What did it mean for me that I found blog and online researching and writing exciting and motivating?
I vividly remember how powerful and profound the process of writing that article was. On one day in particular, I recall sitting at the table in my backyard and writing about Judith Butler’s chapter, “Beside Oneself” in relation to a memory of how my sisters and I sat and comforted my mom on her bed the night before her surgery. After writing out this memory, I realized that that moment on the bed had haunted me for some time. I had always remembered (whether it was true or not, I’m not sure) sitting off to the side as my sisters lay next to her. My not sitting beside her symbolized my failure to be there for my mom when she needed me most. In writing myself back onto that bed, next to her, I was forgiving myself.
This essay was an experiment for me in bringing myself into my writing and in negotiating my self-as-academic with my selves-as-mother-and-daughter. It, along with my other academic interventions are, without a doubt, the most important projects related to my academic research that I have completed since starting graduate school. Some days I cannot even remember the title of my dissertation, but I will always remember what I learned and what I was able to communicate through my digital videos about my family’s farm (which has since been sold). I will always reflect gratefully on how I used the final chapter of my dissertation to cope with the uncertainty, fear and sheer devastation that I felt as my mom suddenly became someone with stage 4 cancer. I will always read through my blog with delight, remembering the various theories I’ve encountered over the years and how they connected to my life at the moment in which they were written. And, I will forever cherish the experience, on a hot summer day, of working on my journal article and being able to imagine, through writing, a way to forgive myself for what I believed I should have but didn’t do for my mom as she was dying.
When I think about the work that matters, I mean, really matters, to me, I’m conflicted. All of these projects were created and completed as interventions in (or breaks from) the academy. Through them, I challenged, resisted and played with academic methods and theories. I wrote them because I had to, because academic approaches were slowly killing my passion for engaging with new ideas and my love for being curious and sharing (in) that curiosity with others. Yet, without my academic training, would I have had the insight and the tools with which to create these projects? And, if that’s the case, where and how do I fit into the academy now that I’m not teaching or researching in it? I’m not sure. That might be a big reason why I’m working on/through my intellectual history right now.
For lack of a better, as in resolved and coherent, answer, I want to return to the haunting question that I posed at the beginning of this essay: Am I living up to the promise that I showed in my senior thesis? As someone who likes to raise lots of questions but doesn’t always like to answer them, I will counter that question with a few more: What was the promise that I showed in that thesis? And what does it mean to live up to it?
When I first began composing this essay, I wouldn’t have been able to answer these questions. And maybe I still can’t. But, I can offer a tentative suggestion for what I think about them right now, in my current state as residing beside/outside of the academy. The promise that I showed in that senior thesis was of someone with a passion for engaging with new ideas and for being willing to follow that passion wherever it lead them, even across or outside of disciplinary boundaries. I began my thesis in September of 1995 fully invested in religion and religious studies, but by the time I finished it in May of 1996, I was hooked on feminist theory and women’s studies. The promise I showed was also that of a deep thinker who liked to question and refused to quickly or too easily resolve theoretical and practical tensions. And the promise I showed was of someone who was very good at understanding, analyzing and communicating complex ideas, but still needed to work on applying those ideas and making them meaningful for herself and her various communities.