Living Beside/s the Academy

An abridged recording of my presentation. Recorded in September, 2015.

On May 20th, 2014 I gave the annual George Hall Lecture for the Religion Department at Gustavus Adolphus College. Here are my remarks:


When Dr. Paul first contacted me about giving this talk, I was scared. What did I, an ex-Academic who is conflicted about their relationship to higher education, have to say to all of you? I haven’t been doing typical research for a few years now. And, since I’m still in the process of figuring out what I think and feel about higher education, I don’t have any BIG conclusions to offer up. But, even as I felt a little scared and a lot of discomfort and uncertainty, I was excited for this opportunity to talk to you about my experiences as a student and to experiment with performing a new sort of intellectual SELF—a non-Academic thinking, feeling, engaging, troublemaking and Undisciplined SELF.  

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 here at Gustavus. 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 sem 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 6 years of college teaching that I’ve barely touched in over two years. 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?

These questions speak to a bigger crisis within higher education.  As institutions struggle with rising costs and the increasing pressure to create programs and degrees that are profitable, some of higher education’s most toxic values have become even more unbearable for its most vulnerable workers, especially adjuncts and temporary Visiting Assistant Professors like I was for 6 years.  Stories like mine, of promising scholars getting burned and burned out in the academy, are popping up at academic conferences, on twitter and Facebook feeds and on blogs and online news sites as workers share their stories and mobilize to make visible their unjust treatment by a system that seems, if not broken, in dire need of radical restructuring.

In this talk, I don’t want to offer a big picture analysis of the problems with the Academy or a list of ways to restructure it. Instead, I want to discuss how I’ve been exploring, struggling with, ruminating on and then responding to the haunting questions that higher education in its current state prompts for so many.

The questions, What happened? and What do I do now?, are necessarily historical, political, social and economic questions. But, they are also ethical ones. I’m interested in exploring their implications for the development of my moral selfhood.

In 2013, my explorations became the basis for a book-length series of accounts documenting my intellectual history and my struggles to make sense of my relationship to the academy after I left it in 2012. Through the process of writing those accounts, I began to craft an alternative trajectory for my work and my critical/creative/scholarly self, one that led me to a space beside and besides the academy.

Today, I want to talk about this space of beside/s and how I got there. This talk is somewhat of an experiment as I struggle to navigate the tension I feel between a need to be critical of my experiences within the academy and a need to honor the passion for learning and engaging that was at least initially fostered there. It is also an experiment as I attempt to resist the academic expectation of objectivity by centering mySelf and My stories.


So, why did I lose my passion for academic research and writing? When I entered graduate school, I believed that the immersion in ideas and theories that it promised would provide me with the tools to make sense of my world/s and experiences and would enable me to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with a wide range of people.  To a certain degree, this happened. But, at some point, my training turned me into a particular sort of Critical Thinking/Academic Self. A self who thought too much and too narrowly about my particular area of study.  A self who was unable to speak with anyone, even non-academics, without citing all my sources or name-dropping at least two theorists or classifying my ideas within a particular school of thought.  A self who was trained to pick apart ideas and authors instead of engaging with them and who felt increasingly distanced from the people, ideas and sense of purpose that had motivated me to be a student/scholar in the first place.

This critical thinking/academic Self was largely crafted through my exposure to the following academic values:

Toxic Academic value #1:

The primary goal of an education is to KNOW and acquire facts in order to master a Discipline. 

Being exposed to, thinking critically about and developing ways to summarize and assess foundational theories in a discipline is very valuable. But “mastering” a discipline often results in the belief that we should or can KNOW everything about a certain area of study.  Devoting all of our time to “knowing” an ever-increasing number of facts, theories, ideas, schools of thought and specialized jargon in one specific discipline can prevent us from deeply engaging with those ideas/theories/authors or each other. It can prevent us from giving serious attention to how what we read moves or unsettles us.  And it can prevent us from seeing how the theories in our discipline are connected to other methods and approaches across the disciplines and outside of the academy.  Prioritizing mastery can also contribute to a loss of our own voices as we spend all of our time acquiring concepts and mastering the ideas of others.

Toxic value #2:

Academic work must, at all times, maintain high standards and be rigorous. 

In addition to acquiring facts and theories in order to master a discipline, students are trained to be rigorous and to critically dismiss and (often) publicly reject work from other scholars that they deem to be unsophisticated, too subjective or not rigorous enough. In this environment, critically assessing others’ work frequently becomes less of a practice of serious engagement and more of an exercise in the trashing of ideas that don’t fit the narrow focus of who and what counts as rigorous.  This trashing enables Academics to police the borders of “good” scholarship and to demonstrate their own worth and status as super Smart Experts.

Standards and extensive training in the tools and concepts of an area of study are valuable and necessary. But, academics need to spend less time policing the borders of who counts as a scholar and more time engaging in the difficult labor of exploring who benefits (and at whose expense it is) when “standards” and rigor are invoked.

Toxic value #3:

Academic speaking and writing should be objective, formal, rational, impersonal, highly complex, lengthy and confident. 

In their academic writing, scholars should not make “I” statements or provide details or examples from their own lives. One should not insert oneself in the writing. It’s too informal and subjective.  Scholars should also make confident and persuasive Truth claims. These claims should not demonstrate uncertainty or ambiguity for fear that they will undermine the Expert-Scholar’s authority and ability to be taken seriously.

Moving outside of our limited perspectives and biases and aiming for some sort of objectivity is an important practice for serious and meaningful engagement with ideas and others. And, being able to effectively communicate our work in ways that are compelling and that demonstrates insight is essential. But, the academic demand to ignore the scholar-as-person in our writing perpetuates the myths that we can transcend our particular perspectives and political motivations in our scholarship, that they somehow don’t influence how we pose questions and develop theories.  And that our daily, lived experiences don’t matter and aren’t important enough for scholarly inquiry.  Additionally, the goal that we persuade others to believe in OUR ideas and OUR perspectives frequently shuts down critical and creative collaborations and conversations.

Toxic Value #4:

Academic work must fit appropriate forms of scholarship and demonstrate your worth as a useful and productive Scholar-Expert.   

Academic scholarship should be produced in the following forms: 1. An academic book, ideally published by a highly prestigious publisher, that will be read by a handful of people, but never cited in their work; 2. A journal article, rigorously reviewed and published in a top-tier journal, that is kept behind a paywall and only accessible to those with university affiliations or expensive journal subscriptions; 3. A highly formalized lecture/talk given at a conference where the only attendants are your fellow presenters and one or two others, and where the only questions asked aren’t questions but opportunities for the asker to devalue and dismiss your work or pontificate on their own brilliant research.

The standard products of academic labor are valuable…and enjoyable. I still thrill at painstakingly reading through journal articles, writing countless notes in the margins and ruminating on the theories and the questions they prompt for me. And I love attending talks by smart intellectuals who present revolutionary ideas that transform my perspectives. But, academic books/journal articles or conference presentations are not the only forms that should count as scholarship. This narrow vision leaves a lot of very smart, serious and important work out. Work that critically challenges dominant academic norms, that frequently bridges the gap between academic and non-academic communities and that critically and creatively imagines new ways of engaging and being a thinking/writing/feeling Scholarly-Self.

These academic values are shifting. Critical conversations about their limits are taking place between scholars in a number of interdisciplinary departments and inside and outside of the academy. But, these critical conversations have been happening for decades, long before I started graduate school in 1996. How much has really changed? And how much can change, especially now that Colleges and Universities are experiencing extreme budget cuts and the pressure to justify their own existence? The academic spaces where challenges to harmful academic values have been taking place—GWSS and Ethnic Studies—are at greatest risk right now. They’re being consolidated or eliminated. And, even when they’re not being cut, scholars working in them are being actively discouraged from discussing or practicing methods that don’t fit with the larger, unified vision of what Higher Education is for and what it does. In this current climate, how entrenched are harmful academic values? And how central to academic life are they?

In many of my graduate classrooms, as a student and a teacher, we read and discussed important critiques of these values. And as a scholar, I spent over a decade immersed in thinking, writing and feeling the force of these critiques. These experiences gave me invaluable tools for troubling and resisting dominant academic norms. When I left the academy, I drew upon those tools to rewrite my narratives as a student. I focused on experiences of my student life that were often read as failures, distractions or obstacles within the dominant academic narrative of Success. Experiences that would be left off of my official academic transcripts. While recounting my life as a scholar and closely and critically examining my own archive of academic documents, I crafted an unofficial student transcripts.


As part of my project, I created a book trailer:

Here’s a little background on my project: During the fall of 2012, my first fall since I was 5 that I hadn’t been in school as a student or teacher, I began work on my intellectual history. I decided to use my own archive as the source material for critical and creative reflections and interrogations of life as a student.

As I began digging through my files in the basement, I found many 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, and old student ids. I also explored my digital files, searching through hidden folders, dating back to Gustavus, and discovered past papers, presentations, my senior thesis, my master’s thesis and my dissertation.

Looking back at these materials, both the physical and the virtual, conjured up a mix of emotions that made me feel joyful, sad, nostalgic, angry, and conflicted all at once. In order to spend time working through my conflicted feelings, not so much to resolve them, but to learn to live with the discomfort and uncertainty that they generated, I started writing.

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 experimented with a number of different online tools for archiving and articulating my accounts. I posted initial drafts of the accounts and my thoughts about the process on my blog. I tweeted pithy reactions and reflections about the academy, frequently in the form of haikus, on Twitter. And I posted images of my artifacts, with brief stories about them, on Tumblr.  Then, to bring my various accounts together, I created an interactive book, using iBooks Author.

I named my intellectual history project, Unofficial Student Transcripts, because, although it is a record of my student work within the academy and while I’ve included many documents that might show up on an official transcript, the accounts that I give are unofficial. My perspectives and approaches to understanding the work that I did and the value of my education are not authorized by the academy or the institutions that I attended. In fact, my accounts frequently come into conflict with the “official” story about why and how one gets an education, earns a Ph.D and trains to be an academic intellectual.

Moreover, the work that I’ve chosen to value in these transcripts is not my grades or degrees or the products of scholarship (like my thesis or dissertation) that enabled me to earn those grades and degrees, but it’s the (often) invisible thinking, feeling, engaging and resisting work that occurred in the midst of my official academic labors. In a series of sections on my early years, college, masters, Ph.D and post-Ph.D, I write about a lot of different work, including: how I performed one of my first acts of resistance to my education in elementary school; how my failure to get into my dream graduate school might have helped me be a better troublemaker, how I’ve spent over 15 years trying to make sense of a passage that I first encountered in a book by Judith Butler in 1997; how I felt intimated and devalued by academic culture as it was practiced by some graduate students in my philosophy classes and how my dissertation, which was only read by a few people and was never published, gave me a plan for living beside/s the Academy.

I am very glad that I wrote this book. Not only was it joyful, especially when I created a series of “quizzes” playfully poking fun at academic values, but the process of working on it has enabled me to engage deeply with my student life. When I began writing Unofficial Student Transcripts, my overall goal was to document and give serious attention to all of the work that I’ve done as an undergraduate, masters, Ph.D and post-Ph.D student.  I didn’t just want to forget it, leaving documents to languish in my basement or files to eventually be unreadable on an outdated computer. I wanted to remember it, to honor it and to take it seriously.

Taking my student life seriously has involved identifying, interrogating and unlearning those academic values that were harmful to me AND creating and learning a new relation to those values that could make room for my own troublemaking and Undisciplined approaches.

So, how am I reworking my relation to those academic values in Unofficial Student Transcripts?

First, to counter the narrow forms of scholarship that are privileged in the academy, I’m experimenting with new forms of critical and creative expression. I’m using new media and then bringing it all together in an interactive book that is available for free on my website and on iTunes.

Second, to counter the rigid, jargon-filled and impersonal writing style that is expected in “serious” academic work, I’m using informal language, lots of “I” statements and including very few references to theorists or their theories. I’m not presenting my ideas as the answer, but including expressions of uncertainty and discomfort and acknowledging the limits of my own perspectives. And, instead of focusing on the “big” thinkers in a discipline to prove my points (and my status as a Smart Expert), I’m looking almost exclusively to my own experiences as the subject and object of my analysis.

Third, to counter the use of “rigorous” as the standard for policing the borders of who and what counts as scholarly, I’m envisioning a new way to assess the value of scholarship by asking: Does it make us curious? Does it keep our important conversations going? Does it move us to struggle? Does it encourage us to pay attention and take seriously the experiences and ideas of a wide range of folks?

And fourth, to counter the expectation that the primary goal of an education is to master a discipline, in my project, I’ve shifted my attention away from documenting how, over the course of my time in school I’ve acquired and KNOW a lot of theories, to giving accounts of how I’ve engaged with ideas, conversations, experiences and the values that I encountered as a student.

But, what does it mean to engage? To engage is to participate and become involved with the ideas, authors and perspectives that we encounter and to establish meaningful connections with them in ways that require thinking about not only what they mean but what they do and what they do to us.

To engage is to give attention to feeling and experiencing, not just knowing and to unlearning, not just learning.

To engage is to work on feeling the effects of ideas, experiencing the force of the questions posed by what we’re encountering, and processing how we are implicated in a theory. This can help us to bring more of our Self—as persons, intellectuals, spiritual beings, bodies— into our work.

My practice of engagement in Unofficial Student Transcripts involves asking a lot of questions about my student life and tracing both my perpetuation of and resistance to dominant academic values. Through the writing/thinking/feeling/resisting process of this project, I wanted to feel the force of my academic training, both the authorized, through dominant academic norms, and the unauthorized, through critiques by academic/non-academic troublemakers. And, I wanted to feel the force of my haunting question: Why did I lose my passion for academic research and writing?

Unofficial Student Transcripts began with some blog entry responses to that haunting question. To illustrate how I’ve engaged, I want to read to you what I wrote in a January 2013 post entitled “Promise.” This version has been edited and differs a little from the original post:

Why did I lose my passion for academic research and writing? Maybe it was because so many of my years in school were devoted to researching and writing about other people’s (not my) ideas. My academic training, while incredibly useful for getting me to think critically and analytically about others’ ideas and theories, also contributed to an inability to connect those ideas and theories to my life and how I experienced it. 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? Maybe not, but 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. 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 experiences as I struggled to reconcile what theories told me about identity or selfhood and how I actually experienced them in my daily life.

intervention one: To counter the effects of this academic training, I decided to create a project that would enable me to take many of the theories about storytelling, women’s agency, identity, selfhood, memory and home and experiment with them in a different medium. Instead of writing an esoteric academic paper, I, along with my husband Scott Anderson, created a digital video about my family’s most treasured home space, the Puotinen family farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The themes that I had been studying for years (like the tension between wanting to belong and needing to critique simplistic notions of belonging) served as the foundation for our project.

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, 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 why not, but I imagine that I was reluctant to subject my highly personal work to the rigid (and often stultifying) demands of academic scholarship.

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 its aversion to “I” statements, its love of theoretical sophistication, its suspicion 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 attention to my own ideas, especially when those ideas were so often at odds with other academics’ ideas and approaches.

intervention two: When I was nearly finished with my dissertation, over two years after I started writing it, my mom got sick. Really, really sick. She was dying from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I was working on my fourth chapter and reflecting on Judith Butler’s difficult questions, What is the livable life?, and Who gets to achieve it? I wrote a big chunk of that final section in the hospital on the day of my mom’s whipple surgery. If the surgery was successful, she might have six months to a year to live. If not, she would most likely be dead in a few weeks. The surgery was a success and she beat the odds and lived for almost 4 years.

When I look back at this chapter, and reread my section on the 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 them on that day, and the days to come, were crucial in enabling me to survive that horrific month when my world shattered.

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 my 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.

intervention three: I can’t remember when the idea first hit me, but in the spring of 2009, I decided to create and write in my own blog. I had been using blogs in my classes since 2007, but I had yet to experiment on one with my own theories and research. I decided to use my blog as a space for documenting and archiving all of my ideas and theories about the value of troublemaking. These ideas had been fermenting for over 10 years, almost since the beginning of graduate school, but I had never had time to write about them. And I didn’t make the time because these ideas—about The Brady Bunch and Jurgen Habermas; Michel Foucault and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who; Eminem, Borat and Socrates; or Judith Butler and Hannah Montana, didn’t seem as “serious” or “important” as my work in feminist theory and ethics.

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!

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 blogging, 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?

intervention four: Months after my mom died, in 2009, I began writing about grief and loss on my blog. The blog gave me a space for processing that grief and for thinking through how my experiences of being in a sustained period of not-quite-grieving as my mom was unable or refused to die fit or failed to fit with Judith Butler’s theories on the value of grief. When I came across a call for papers on grief, bereavement and motherhood in an academic journal, I decided to submit an essay for it about my own experiences with being a mother who recently lost her mother. I used my blog to document and share the process of reflecting and writing on grief and motherhood. My finished essay, “Living and Grieving Beside Judith,” which was published in the Journal for the Motherhood Initiative allowed me, through the process of writing it, to understand and live with my grief.

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 my mom symbolized my failure to be there for her 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.

After I left the academy at the beginning of 2012 and began seriously thinking about the work that matters, I mean, really matters, to me, I realized that almost all of it had been created and completed as interventions that challenged, resisted and played with academic methods, theories and norms. I did this work 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. But, this work that meant so much to me, that was helping me to cultivate a critical and creative voice, that allowed me to process and heal after my mom’s death and that served as a way to connect different parts of my self, was largely ignored or dismissed.  There seemed to be no room for my way of being a thinking, feeling Self within the Academy.

Through the process of writing this account, and the other ones included in Unofficial Student Transcripts, I realized that this project wasn’t just about taking my student life seriously, or reflecting on and trying to answer the haunting questions, What happened? Am I living up to my promise as a scholar? And, What do I do now? It was also about carving out my own space where my vision for how to be a creative, critical, thinking and engaged Self might be possible.  I imagine this space as existing besides (as in, in addition to) and beside (as in, next to) the Academy.

I love the concept of besides and beside. Understanding mySelf as living BESIDES allows for an additional approach other than the Academic way of being that I had been trained to believe was the only way to be an intellectual. The only way to do something valuable with my Ph.D and my promise as a Scholar. Living besides opens up the possibility for other models, other approaches, other directions, other perspectives, and other ways to answer the haunting questions, What happened? and If not this, then what?

Understanding mySelf as living BESIDE the Academy enables me to craft a relation to the academic norms that is neither for nor against them.  I’m not interested in fully rejecting or endorsing the academic values that helped shape who I am or how I engage with the world as a troublemaking Undisciplined scholar. Instead, I’m rethinking and reworking those values, creating possibilities that have been deemed impossible and imaging worlds that have been unimaginable within the academic spaces that I’ve inhabited.

For the most part, I envision beside/s not as any one physical space, but as a new relation to the dominant academic values that have played such a central role in making me who I am.  A new way of understanding and of using them that isn’t about uncritically following or completely rejecting them. However, I do also understand beside/s to exist in actual space. But where? Right now, my beside/s space is online, on my TROUBLE blog, my UNDISCIPLINED website and my new storytelling project, THE FARM.  Working in these spaces has enabled me to find a voice and to cultivate meaningful practices of thinking, feeling, resisting and engaging.

I wonder, What other spaces exist for being beside/s? Is it possible to create this space within the Academy? Is there room to be a different sort of scholar, a different sort of intellectual SELF? I hope we can return to this question in a minute, but first, a conclusion, of sorts:


As I worked on my intellectual history and now continue to wrestle with the questions of, What happened? and What do I do now?, I’ve realized that there was always another question implied by my critical and creative explorations: What is an education for? I see the IS in this question to be more about imagining possibilities—What CAN an education be for?—than dictating prescriptions—that is, What SHOULD an education be for?

Here are some answers that I’ve come up with. I’d like to place them beside and besides the current “should” answers, which are: learning marketable skills, earning a degree and getting a job. Again, what is an education for?

  • To develop new languages for understanding mySelf and the world.
  • To connect with ideas, authors, other people.
  • To cultivate and practice being curious and capacious.
  • To be exposed to new ideas, new worlds, new ways of being.
  • To harness passion and direct it in meaningful ways.
  • To develop resources for processing and healing.
  • To acquire tools for resisting and reimagining.
  • To engage in/with LIFE.
  • And to contribute to and sustain ongoing conversations that are bigger than any one individual or institution.

This last goal, of contributing to larger conversations, is inspired by Andrea Smith and her brief essay for a roundtable discussion on the Academic Industrial Complex in a 2007 issue of The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Here’s what she sees as a primary goal for intellectual work:

our contribution should be seen as part of a larger collaborative intellectual project whereby our goal is not to prove our own brilliance, but rather to perpetuate a conversation that will continue beyond our contribution. If years from now no one remembers what we said, then we will have still done important work if we did our part to keep the larger conversation going.

Smith 142

What is the larger conversation that we need to keep going? For me, it’s about: 1. exploring how and where we become thinking, feeling, and engaged Selves and 2. about deeply questioning whether or not the Academy is a space for fostering that development. While I have some ideas about how to answer the first part, I’m less certain about the second. What I do believe is that we need to make spaces for thinking critically about the limits of the Academy and we need to keep the conversation about how to resist, rethink and even restructure it going.

My initial contribution to this conversation was the posing of a highly personal question about what happened to my passion for being a scholar and the exploration of an ethical response to that question that involves reimagining my self and my relation to academic values. In many ways, I wanted to use this talk (both the process of creating it, which was difficult!, and my performance of it today) as a way to experience the force of the question that I posed about my lost passion for academic work. To take seriously my conflicted feelings. To be curious about what other questions my question might raise about academic values and practices.

After spending a lot of time working on and through this talk, I realize that I’m also hoping my accounts might serve as an example, not of how to be, but of proof that other ways of being are possible and imaginable and worth experimenting with. And I’m hoping that these accounts might serve as an invitation to all of you to share your stories about other ways of being, ways that have been ignored, dismissed, or maybe not even imagined…yet.