Life and the endless journey of situating oneself…

This is definitely a reflection: pretty short, hopefully sweet. I have been considering the way we position ourselves in academia, our research and our writing. Like many undergraduate and graduate students, I am currently reading a book for a class that is due next week. In my case, that volume is Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich. The first half of the text is a memoir of the author’s last years as a doctoral candidate and her first as a scholar working to publish and to gain tenure. Through descriptive vignettes, somewhat in the style of Walter Benjamin, the book describes her experiences with depression and vividly portrays how daily and ordinary activities in life and academia became difficult and anxious moments for her.

While I do not wish to compare myself to Cvetkovich or her struggles with depression, I nonetheless sometimes found her descriptions eerily familiar to my own experience. For example, I was struck by the questions she tended to ask herself as she finished a work as well as one of her conclusions: “Academia breeds particular forms of panic and anxiety leading to what gets called depression—the fear that you have nothing to say, or that you can’t say what you want to say, or that you have something to say but it’s not important enough or smart enough” (p.18). These thoughts can be particularly apparent and vexing now, as finals approach and the end of the semester motivates me to look forward to my future endeavors; hooray for preliminary exams (be sure to smile)! Her indecision when making the most basic life choices (e.g., what to get at the grocery store), definitely reminded me of certain days in my life when I was so focused on the need to move forward in my research that I balked at deciding what to eat for dinner: “cereal … carrots … ice cream … Or sushi?” Thank goodness for my cuisine-savvy roommates!  I also felt I understood her feelings well when she described her inability to write as deadlines came racing forward. Her description caused me to think back to my most recent paper, whose last page took an entire day to write, even though I knew what I wished to argue. Granted, I spent some of that time lying on my floor, dancing through the hallway of my apartment and watching some seriously fascinating squirrels outside my window. I had reached an impasse, Cvetkovich’s word for all of those times that one cannot seem to move forward.

Impasses often occur as doctoral students seek to situate themselves in their respective academic fields by pursuing research, networking in relevant academic communities or writing. In her book, for example, Cvetkovich pondered whether her memoir would fill a particular gap in the academic literature on depression. When writing an article, a scholar must consider how she expresses her ideas, even what words to use, in order to send appropriate signals to her academic peers. Likewise, when conducting qualitative research, the analyst should constantly reflect on where she is positioned in her investigation—where she is coming from; who she is with respect to her subject; how she is engaging her subjects and what she should say to present herself to her audience. The constant pressure to analyze one’s position in all of these ways can be daunting. It requires making choices and moving forward toward our goal of contributing to a general body of knowledge that could, someday, help the world. Nevertheless, the intellectual and emotional pressure the academy can put on aspiring academics occasionally seems overwhelming.

I have no specific suggestions concerning how most effectively to address these questions. The well-known children’s story, The Little Engine That Could, comes to mind at such times. Nevertheless, how one sees oneself within society, within a certain field, as a member of a community or as a researcher during a particular project requires constant reflection. Setting aside the fact that there seems to be limited time to contemplate given the busy schedule required in academic life, how do you find the mental discipline to consider issues before you analytically and not simply fall prey to the concomitant angst and other emotions that may accompany self-conscious consideration?

Is it naïve or even foolish to envision analytics and reflection as occurring without feeling? Perhaps this train of thought focuses too much on the individual and on personal achievement. But it must be said that the academy socializes individuals to embrace a distinctively liberal and Western mode of thinking. Even as doctoral students critique the power structures and discourses that shape our society, our own academic experience shapes us. Would focusing our efforts on the goal—to in some way make a contribution to society—shift our perspective? If so, how could we ensure that epistemic change interacts with the academy as a whole? Is that too idealistic? Or should we make this shift for ourselves and, with a wink and a nod, otherwise acquiesce to the common, very ego-driven academic discourse?

And if you get to that impasse point of complete mental inertia because everything seems so inextricably intertwined and the pressure is so great that you do not know what to say, do or think, what can you do? Just before I entered my doctoral program, I received a quotation at a planning retreat in which I participated for Community Voices, a graduate student run program on campus. I have since found it valuable:

There is no path I can take without having my heart broken, so why not get on with it and stop wanting those extra-special circumstances, which stop me from doing something courageous (David Whyte).

If Whyte’s reflection doesn’t lift, or at least leaven, my spirits, I try this aphorism offered by the lead character in a famous television series:

I thought it was gonna be like in the movies—you know, inspirational music, a montage: me sharpening my pencil, me reading, writing, falling asleep on a big pile of books with my glasses all crooked, ’cause in my montage, I have glasses. But real life is slow, and it’s starting to hurt my occipital lobe (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

On further consideration, I see that each of these quotations illustrates intensely reflective and personally-focused thought. Ah!

 

References

Cvetkovich, A. (2012). Depression: A Public Feeling. London: Duke University Press.

sarahlyonhill2Sarah Lyon-Hill is a second year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech.  She is investigating alternative approaches to international and community development. Most recently she has been researching the potential of arts-based civil society organizations (CSOs) to help communities address past trauma and conflict so their populations can develop the collaborative capacity to engage  actively in their own development. Sarah works as a graduate assistant in the VT Office of Economic Development. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Beloit College in French and International Relations and her Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.

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