What Happened? and What do I do now?

A few years ago, I was looking through some of my files in the basement when I found the final evaluation for my senior thesis in religion. 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 carrying a big gray file box around with me as I went to my senior seminar in Old Main. 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 of academic articles from 10 years of grad school and almost 6 years of college teaching that I’ve barely touched since 2011. So many years of dedicated research and thinking academically about religion, ethics, agency, subjectivity, feminist theory, resistance, subversion, queer theory, pedagogy, and more. What was it all for?, Why did I stop? and What do I now?

What happened? and What do I do now?

Resisting the strong urge to feel ashamed or to turn my back on 33 years of education, I decided to confront and work through these questions in the best way I know how:  As a student and scholar who researches, critically analyzes evidence and develops theories about it. As a troublemaker who pushes beyond easy assessments and is persistently curious about what gets left out of official accounts of being a successful student. And as a storyteller who takes the raw material of student life and the fragmented and sometimes unreliable memories of being a student and weaves them into stories about living beside/s the academy that envision the question, What do I do now? as an invitation to imagine new possibilities, not as an exasperated or fearful cry of defeat.

In late 2012, I began digging through my files in the basement for anything that seemed significant. I was relieved to see that even though I had moved around quite a bit as a student—from Minnesota to California to Minnesota to Georgia to Minnesota again—I had managed to hang onto some key documents: the final evaluation for my senior thesis, a copy of my master’s proposal, papers with my teacher’s comments from my first year in college, name tags from conferences, old student ids. I also explored my digital files, searching through hidden folders that I only managed to find after trying out different keyword searches, dating back to my masters, and discovered past papers, presentations, my senior thesis, my master’s thesis and my dissertation.

And then I started writing.

The first account I wrote was “Pithy Chewiness.” Then, inspired by the process, I wrote, “Promise.” I began looking through past accounts I had already created on my blog or in digital stories and combining those with new reflections. I read through old papers and wrote about how my perspectives as an undergraduate or an early graduate student had shifted, been complicated, challenged or reinforced.

I’ve tried to be honest with and truthful about my experiences, even as I’ve realized that this project has increasingly becoming a way for me to justify and value the work that I’ve been doing and that (I feel) has been undervalued or ignored by others. I’m not sure that I’ve always succeeded in being honest, but I have found the process of writing (and collecting) these various accounts of my student life to be useful and provocative and very necessary.

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