Filed under: Academe
I have an ambivalent relationship with academic conferences. I like the idea of them: the forming of an intellectual hub; the opportunity to share and exchange ideas with peers. There’s something comforting about a full programme of speakers and talks and pre-arranged lunchtimes.
Though once there at the conference – once one has paid the hefty admission fee including competing for a privileged spot of presenting a paper – I often feel deflated. Conferences can be a tiring process, but its another sort of fatigue I feel, more a dispiriting sense of pointlessness.
I spend a lot of time and energy preparing conference presentations. I tend to write a new paper for each conference I attend. I am incapable of just ‘winging it’ and need to carefully write and practice before each conference. Following my recent presentation at the British Sociological Association annual conference, I wondered over the usefulness of this routine. I felt that the time and energy I spent preparing the paper wasn’t balanced by the end result of 15 minutes presentation, a series of PowerPoint slides (that look lacklustre whatever I try and do to them) and (hopefully) a couple (somewhat relevant) questions from the (hopefully) at least ten people or more in the audience.
As an ‘early career’ sociologist, my attendance was, in part, strategic. I am compelled to disseminate my PhD research. This is a professional necessity but I do have a genuine desire to share my ideas with others and hope that people will be interested. Though conference attendance is not something I can currently easily afford. The struggle to afford the entrance fee exacerbates my discomfort and highlights the feeling of disconnection, of not belonging, of not quite being part of the club.
It seems that the BSA have been making changes to address the needs of early career academics, and more broadly have begun to recognise the need to stay relevant to contemporary debates and engage the ‘public’. How far the BSA and other such organisations still have to go was captured for me in a comment made by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams in her plenary, where on being asked what can sociologists do to fight against the rise of the politics of brexit, Trump and so on, she replied that academics would do better to start by looking at the inequalities that exist within their own profession. No doubt that comment sat uneasily for some, for me it resonated all too well. I think for many sociologists, professionalisation of the discipline, or more accurately marketisation of the discipline, is something to be resisted and to fight against. And yet surely there must be a way to develop fair and equal working practices without creative work being destroyed. But still it seems we haven’t quite figured it out.
I suppose that’s another discomfort of the conference, it fosters short-sightedness. Where social problems become things to discuss in musty, bland rooms accompanied by slides and a too often curtailed chance of discussion. Issues are dwelt upon for a time-limited period and then mentally the conference structure forces you to mentally move on. Everything becomes ‘interesting’ and space for contemplation can feel scarce.
In 2013 I attended the BSA conference and similarly felt this sense of short-sightedness. I felt frustrated at what felt like at the time the reduction of ideas through the conference presentation format. Perhaps then at the beginning of my PhD I was somewhat naïve, but what I wrote four years ago I feel can still be applied to the present day:
I might be old-fashioned in that I came into Sociology wanting to change things and not keep them the same because I saw problems that were being ignored and overlooked. This applies to the inner workings of the discipline too. Conferences that take place in opulent buildings filled with overwhelming numbers of white middle class male faces leave a bad taste in my mouth. John Holmwood in his plenary spoke of readjustment rather than constructing ideals of the future. Indeed a fixed ideal of the future is limiting, but perhaps a fixed desire to maintain the status quo is even more so. There is a paradox as Sociology continues to concern itself with engaging the public and ‘every day life’ we are getting further and further away from the object we are so hurriedly scrabbling toward.
I think then what I felt was that the ideas, the critique, the participation in sociological concerns were not big enough. This feels even more marked today. Zoe William’s suggestion that we start laughing at people when they spout illogical or prejudice comments may not be the whole solution but I think there is something to be said about academics taking themselves too seriously. In our careful methodology to prevent harm and remain objective its almost as though sociologists have become too scared to say anything at all.
Some humour might help, but I am certainly not suggesting intellectual rigour be abandoned. I have had the misfortune of listening to one too many presentations given by professors who seem to feel their unsubstantiated opinion is adequate scholarship. But if we are concerned only with promoting our new book or having petty squabbles amongst ourselves I’m struggling to see how conferences will ultimately contribute anything new.
Filed under: Academe, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: emogeo, Lauren Berlant, stories
Everyone wants to tell their story. What use is a story? Who is telling the story and why should we listen?
These are some thoughts I am left with following the Emotional Geographies conference last week. Stories were everywhere: the telling, the encouragement to tell, the strategies to extract them.
What’s my story, I think. Do I need a story?
Through my research I have learnt that telling one’s personal story is the key to recovery. Telling a story is healing and restorative. Its empowering, enlightening, liberating. Telling stories is the answer to everything it seems.
It isn’t social change we need or meaningful work or better health care or a living wage, we just need to construct our story and then we will be free.
Telling stories is about finding the truth. Stories are true if you tell them. That’s your truth, it can’t be denied. But sometimes some stories are deemed less true than others. What are the parameters on truth? How does truth get revealed, concealed and distorted in the telling of stories?
At the conference emotional stories were the most truthful. Two of the keynote speakers told personal stories of illness. They were accounts narrated emotively, they wanted to tell us about their feelings. The personal was awarded more status than scientific or medical knowledge. This was ‘writing against the grain’.
At the conference and in my research I have been struck by the question as to whether stories can ever be non-conventional. In a culture where stories proliferate, and lives are lived via the online advertising reels of Facebook and Instagram, and public displays of emotions are sensationalised (and induced) in ‘Britain’s got Baking on Ice’; there’s an overcrowding of stories and confessions and tears. There’s so many stories but less connection to them.
To really go against the grain it might be better to say nothing at all. How would it feel to not have a story?
Stories cannot avoid being conventional because they rely on an assumption of truth. It has to appear true to whoever is listening. Stories interpret events so that they have meaning and stories demand an ending of some form.
Imagine if these dimensions of telling a story were not adhered to. People diagnosed with psychosis are often accused of telling false stories. Their accounts do not align with dominant assumed truths that structure society. The interpretation might not make sense either. The story might not end. It might be circular.
These are not considered stories; this is stuckness. People who are grieving might tell stories about how their dead husband speaks to them. They might take this to mean that their spouse is still here. They might tell this same story for 17 years.
Stuckness is just a stopping place on the way to finding a story. But without a story you are undoubtedly stuck. And ‘wrong’ stories might take you to the wrong places.
Stories might be told as though they are definitive and final: the memoir is the exemplar – this is my one true story of me. Of course this is not accurate, a memoir is not truth but an edited identity, like an instagram photo, capturing one reality and omitting a whole load of others.
Stories are always in flux. Or rather individuals, people, are always in flux. Telling a story gives respite from the flux – and it might feel like catharsis. Constructing a story might be a way of containing the unbearable. Sometimes though there just isn’t a story to capture a feeling or an event. And perhaps the feeling or event doesn’t need containing. Perhaps not having a story is a way to think about the inadequacy of storytelling and to think of, not better stories, but better realities that will allow space for flourishing. Stories can become a quick-fix remedy when what is needed is not a podium, but lasting spaces in which to inhabit; where meaning can be found in the liminal and a life worth living can be discovered in the suspension of conclusions that is not nothingness.
I’m getting myself around this year which is somewhat unheard of. I am very excited to be speaking at the following conferences this year (maybe more to follow…). If you’re interested come and have a listen!
Titles of papers and conferences:
23-25th April: ‘What does it mean to recover?: Negotiating recovery in grief and bereavement’, The British Sociological Association Conference, Leeds.
5-6th June: ‘Navigating the liminal space of grief’, Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin.
7-8th July: ‘Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign’, Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane conference, University of Sheffield.
Here’s the full abstracts:
‘What does it mean to recover?: Negotiating recovery in grief and bereavement’, BSA, April.
The use of the term ‘recovery’ has become increasingly popular in mental health care and policy. The notion of recovery began as a radical movement that critiqued the paternalistic nature of health care and sought to reclaim power back to the patient or service user. Though the initial move towards recovery sought to bring acceptance to living with an illness and to broaden the notion of recovery outside of medical requirements; as recovery has been co-opted and incorporated into mainstream practices, the radical demands have gradually coincided with, or diluted by, a government agenda of autonomy and individual responsibility. Similarly in literature on grief, recovery has gained interest yet what recovery from grief entails remains contested. Current theories tend to conceptualise grief as a psychological phenomenon to be overcome, often through the use of psychotherapeutics. Yet the controversy over the omission of the grief exclusion in the fifth edition of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders revealed how competing definitions of grief persist with little consensus on whether grief should be considered a ‘natural’ process or as potentially pathological. In this paper I suggest that investigating what it means to recover first requires looking at the ways in which people who are seen as ‘failing’ to recover are managed and treated. In doing so I will argue that though the definitions of recovery from grief remain contested, there are theories, policies, and practices that seek to guide people who are grieving towards a vision of successful recovery.
‘Navigating the Liminal Space of Grief’, Between Spaces and Places, June.
It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. In this paper I seek to suggest that people who have been bereaved enter into a liminal space. Describing grief as a liminal space is to suggest that the boundaries that previously provided a secure understanding of the world and sense of self have, following bereavement, become destabilised or permeable. In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief. Following Tuan (Tuan, 1977, p.6) I am here distinguishing between ‘space’ and ‘place’. A place has a degree of permanence; it is secure and familiar. For example, the cemetery or the mortuary which have been the focus of research into death and landscapes, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into. Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience but rather as a rite of passage in which normative modes of living are suspended. Grief as a liminal space also sets out a social space in which grief is placed in the mundane, everyday aspects of living a life. It is not a phenomenon that exists purely in the psyche but in relation to other people, ideas and institutions. By viewing grief as a liminal space, grief is not taken for granted or presumed to possess a natural or normal process but can be seen to be constructed in different ways, in interaction with and being attached to historically specific contexts and discourses.
Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. London: Edward Arnold.
Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign. Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane, July.
In this paper I will argue why grief is an instance that allows for the recognition of the non-sovereignty of being human. Within a contemporary western neo-liberal context, being human is often presumed to involve having control over decision-making and responsibility for our choices. This is reflected in the rhetoric of mental health recovery where recovery is synonymous with being a functional citizen. To fail to recover is to refuse the normative fantasy of the ‘good life’ and to be read as problematic or as a troublemaker. In grief, the failure to recover is commonly associated with the failure to let go of an attachment to the deceased, described as ‘melancholia’ or in contemporary psychiatric diagnosis: ‘complicated grief’. However, contrary to the rhetoric of recovery, the failure to ‘let go’ of the deceased and the capacity for grief to make us come undone might alternatively be understood as an occasion that reveals how sovereignty is unsettled by affective experiences such as grief. If grief has the potential to inject some incoherence and ambiguity into our sense of self and sense of sovereignty by highlighting the complexity of attachments and relationality, what does this mean for how we think about the human?
Sometimes it would seem that doing a PhD is possibly the most terrible life decision you can make. And it is often from my fellow PhD students especially those coming to the end of their thesis, in the begrudged ‘writing up’ stage, that this sentiment emerges. As the newbie in my faculty (only 6 months in) my beaming smile at the outset of my studies was soon replaced for the cynical grouchiness of my colleagues. It seems it is in the nature of the PhD student to be persistently fed up with all that is offered to them. As a small mandatory requirement all students in my faculty are requested to be on campus for one day a week. Instead of realizing this to be the minimal demand it is – er we get to work from home in our pyjamas the other 6 days of the week?? – we moan as though it is the biggest affliction on our lives.
As someone who has worked in retail for many years struggling to get a funded studentship (applied 4 times, did one year self-funded whilst working and dropped out), when I finally got a fully-funded PhD place, I relished everyday I didn’t have to stand in a shop and smile at people and feel undervalued, and I also cherished having got to the age of 28 and yet again successfully avoiding the 9-5 office life which to me has always felt like a fate worse than retail. So to counteract the dreary cynicism we PhD students have I want to list and celebrate the many amazing aspects of being a PhD student. But first let’s face up to those con’s of doing a PhD:
1) It’s actually fucking hard. It’s hard to get a funded PhD place and it’s hard to sustain it and it’s hard to finish in three years.
2) You feel pointless 90% of the time. As a PhD student you are in some bizarre limbo, neither fully fledged academic but neither totally unworthy of attention. You are always fighting to get your voice heard.
3) Other people, namely non-academics, make you feel even more pointless. “So what do you actually do?” and “That’s sounds pretty easy” and “Is that all you’ve done?” and “So, what?” are all comments spoken by the sort of un-informed cretin who thinks that work means travelling to a place and travelling back everyday wearing formal wear and talking about figures and spreadsheets. Sometimes, in the work-life of a PhD student it takes three weeks to write two questions. It just does.
4) You are very poor all the time and subsequently continually hungry all the time.
5) Social life evaporates rapidly due to aforementioned poverty when everyone gets sick of your sponging. Not to mention the gulf that emerges because no-one understands nor cares why you cannot just hang out whenever they want: “But you don’t have a job?!”
6) Small matters of high probability of significant mental disturbance, poor dietary habits, hygiene becomes slack.
7) Admin BS. The life of a PhD student involves a considerable quota of admin BS. ‘Skills profile’, probationary assessments, quarterly reviews, meeting notes and so on and blah, the research councils and REF and their professionalization of academic work means even PhDers are not immune from the paperwork circus.
Ok so now on with the good stuff!
1. FREEDOM FROM THE BOSSES. You are your own boss. Aside from the aforementioned admin BS, a few hoops to jump through, but for the most part (95%) you structure your own agenda. After all it’s your research the university is funding and supporting, the other 5% is a small price to pay.
2. You don’t have to see people every day if you don’t want to. NO SMALL TALK EVER AGAIN.
3. You can work 9am-5pm, or 5pm-9am, or 9am-12pm and then again 6pm-8pm, you make time your own.
4. Never have to commute again. Or get squashed with all the suits on the tube. Aside from meeting supervisors every couple weeks and the odd faculty meeting and events (normally with free lunch 😉 ), you don’t have to go outside. Except for food which you can’t really afford anyway, a weekly trip for bread, vegetables and peanut butter and you’re sorted.
5. No I don’t feel like showering today, and that’s okay.
6. I was going to get dressed today, but nah.
7. Friend calls: whoops pressed ignore.
8. Friends calls again: ‘So I’m near your place, I can come over in 20 minutes?’ ‘Umm’ (a bowl of pasta is on my lap and I haven’t yet got round to putting on underwear, its 3pm), ‘Sure’.
9. Yeah I’m gonna take a break. WHENEVER I WANT.
10. It’s sunny outside, better take those books to the park. Working and sunbathing, loving life.
11. Just gonna have a cloud-staring break for half an hour.
12. I can listen to whatever music I want. At whatever volume. And sing along. And dance. Oh yeah.
13. Aside from those few that like to make you feel small and pointless, people think you’re really clever. “So what do you do?”, “Oh I’m just studying for a PhD”, “Oh wow I couldn’t do that!” (blushes) “Ahem well yeah I am kind of a genius…”
13. The limbo of being a PhD student is not just sometimes unnerving, it is also it’s beauty. You don’t have to be categorized. You’re creating something. You’re outside of that world of work with its set hours and scheduled lunch breaks and enforced uniforms. Initially this is unsettling. To go from working full-time in a retail setting: no time for anything, to be around people all the time, becoming brain dead, just a smiley robot – to days with only books for company, days where I had to organize my own time, days I would spend totally alone with little or no contact with friends or the outside world, was terrifying. I literally had anxiety attacks. But slowly new patterns form. Spending a lot of time alone is inevitable when undertaking a PhD. But this isn’t isolation. I realise I don’t feel lonely because I have the minds and thoughts of the writers and philosophers I am reading with me (spoken like a true book nerd). Also you sort of melt into the quiet. Living in bustling East London I am never too far from noise and people. But the quiet of an empty library or your desk becomes a special place – scary sometimes yes – but that is why we chose this path. Or at least it should be. If you do a PhD just for the status or career options (in the current academic climate a PhD won’t get you far anyway – especially not in terms of money – you should know this!) then you will come stuck pretty quick. I chose a PhD not for the prestige being a Dr might one day bring me, but because it gave me space and freedom, even if this was sometimes coupled with relative poverty and hunger. The space and freedom to unravel a question I had been pondering for many years. A question that was both personal and collective, part of me and yet so much bigger. The quiet is not scary then, its just life with all the trivialities emptied out. It’s space pure and simple, and it’s yours.
14) This time will never come again. What other opportunity will grant you this space and independence? I have heard many a senior academic reminisce on their PhD days, as if they would do anything to reclaim that intellectual and professional freedom again. But now they have too much to lose. The PhD is in many ways a bizarre relic, one of many academia loves to retain as part of its tradition. And though many revisions are added to the process, at heart I like to see it as a creative endeavour, an art form all of it’s own. Who know’s what will happen after? Everyone loves to ask “So what are you going to do with it?” because as we know degrees are just things we collect in the race to get up the ladder to career and wealth. But education is an end in itself. Perhaps I should have visions of ‘changing practice’ or saving lives or becoming some esteemed thinker. But I don’t. I’m just in this journey right now. And it’s actually kind of amazing.
Filed under: Academe | Tags: #britsoc13, alternatives, conferences., limitations, radical, sociology
Two years ago in April it was a beautifully warm and sunny Spring. I was wearing sunglasses and sandals as I lazed in the sun on the grass in the LSE campus at my first attendance to the British Sociological conference. Back then I was on the verge of a crucial decision, 6 months or so into my Sociology PhD (the first time round) I was questioning my commitment to the discipline. I attended the conference, paying the extortionate fee out of my own pocket (around £210 for concessionary fees plus BSA membership joining fee of £50, non-members you are looking at £500 for the whole three days), but above all seeking inspiration from my fellow peers. I was expecting to mingle with like-minded thinkers, engage with forward-thinking and exciting alternatives. What I went away with was an overwhelming sense of ‘Sociology’s crisis’ a discourse which echoed throughout the conference. Two years ago it was the peak of student protest activity, Occupy and UKUncut were taking to the streets, and yet that sense of activism and exchange of ideas felt very distant from the stale powerpoint presentations and formal wine receptions of the conference. This week that same feeling of what can only be described as disappointment arose once again. It was shortly after the conference of 2011 that I applied to study yoga here and booked a one way ticket to India. Two years down the line and back nestled into academia, I am wiser and less naive on my return. Still though I registered for Britsoc13 with enthusiasm even if with a pinch of apprehension.
Housed within the Grand Connaught Rooms, what was underwhelming was the similarity of ideas, grumbles and criticism of two years ago. Now well immersed into the age of austerity, there was much talk of how Sociology’s challenge is ‘different’ now and we need to adapt new tools and ways of thinking. Yet these calls for change were largely muffled by the amount of formulaic presentations that rehearsed a conservative almost stereotypical form of Sociology I hadn’t been acquainted with since A-level. There was luckily some genuinely great speakers and talks to be found such as the Open stream which took place in the Derby suite and had an interesting array of psycho-social research and presentations. Namely one panel discussion which focused on the marginalisation of psychoanalysis in Sociology for me set the scene for the whole conference. George Cavalletto remarked rather poignantly how researchers get frustrated by Sociology’s inability to account for inner life and then turn to literature and cultural studies to find answers and adequate expression for their ideas. The marginalisation of psychoanalysis as a credible discipline in the social sciences and the further degradation of the psyche and the emotions as valid areas of study has led to Sociology becoming a discipline where emotions are only things that come from the outside-in thus reinforcing tired binaries between mind and body. Sociology becomes a matter of inequalities that can be seen or proved but not felt, its remit including only the newsworthy topics of race, gender and class, but articulated in a very truncated sense.
The discussion following Polly Toynbee’s plenary also threw up some interesting questions. The plenary was in some ways a how-to guide to getting your research in the mainstream media but the Q&A saw some audience members stand up to talk about their work as ‘activist scholar’s’ as they described themselves. A sociologist’s task is to not just relay information but actively educate their communities in which they work and research they argued. Further another response reminded us that a sociologist’s task is to be provocative and go against the norm. Sociologist’s are so busy toeing the line and filling in REF applications they forget about the importance of big ideas. Toynbee was calling for the need for big thinkers along with the researchers that produce the ‘facts’ as she called them. (The simplistic view of the journalist where objectivity exists as a possibility…). Yet as she also acknowledged ‘big thinkers’ are dismissed if they lack the appropriate forms of validation. The sociologist’s hands are so tied that all that becomes possible are small-scale projects. Yet the problem lies not in the small scale of the research but the small scale of ideas and thinking. Big ideas can be attached to the small-scale, the embedded, and the everyday, but what is lacking is the ability and/or motivation to undertake this bridging. This was evident in the Happiness session where happiness was banded about like an unproblematic object. Research was presented that relayed people’s understanding of happiness as the truth of happiness rather than viewing them as a particular narrative of happiness that borrowed from the dominant understandings of happiness that imply certain ways to live a life and be a good citizen. Sara Ahmed’s work on happiness was demolished in the hands of Mark Cieslik who seemingly read a different book, and seemed to think that Ahmed was wanting to do away with happiness, where she was arguing for a form of happiness that did not ignore unhappiness as a possibility. Instead happiness was seen as a thing that existed outside of history, an innate feeling, and neglected to see how the form of happiness that was being advocated was remarkably similar with neo-liberal ways of living and being.
When emotions are a focus of sociological study they become hollowed out and instrumental, lacking theorisation from more sensory modes of study, such as psychoanalysis for example that could illuminate the way in which a person experiences happiness from their environment through affect and attuning to certain things. These ideas are active in disciplines such as cultural studies. It is no surprise that for my own research I have been reaching for Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant to provide an adequate reading of subjectivity and loss. And Nikolas Rose and Michel Foucault for a sociology where the body and psyche are actually present and acknowledged. Les Back led a great session on the use of the senses and sensory methodology in Sociology. Again the best sessions of Britsoc13 were the ones that basically said ‘You know what we are not really supposed to be here but we are going to try and challenge you for 90 minutes.’ My year at Goldsmiths acquainted me with Les Back’s great speaking style and passion for the rekindling of a form of forgotten Sociology. It was quite striking to hear from someone of Back’s stature and prominence about the difficulty he had in deciding to overcome the wariness he had concerning talking about his belief in the importance of the sensory in sociological research. It shared parallels with a similarly great session focused on reflexivity presented by Jon Dean and a presentation by Martyn Hammersley about the role of sociology in analyzing key events such as the UK riots. As Jon Dean spoke in his presentation about the problem of including personal reflections in academic work and the dilemma of what is too much (a problem I know well) a response from the audience after asked ‘What kind of discipline do we have if we cannot include such data in our work?’. It was a powerful statement. What kind of discipline do we have? Thinking of Les Back’s hesitation to focus on the sensory – perhaps out of fear of being discredited – I too started to think what discipline is this? And indeed do I want to be part of it? Les Back then spoke about an exhibition he visited as an example for the forms of presentation that should be on display at the BSA conference. Installations that engage the senses. Also in the session Alex Rhys-Taylor used sound recordings and gave a monologue of the sights and sounds of Ridley Road market in the East end of London that felt very close to the ‘scenic compositions’ Lynn Froggett spoke of back in the psycho-social sessions.
It is true some research lends itself better to interactive and creative presentations than others. The point is not to do away with statistics, graphs and powerpoint. But it is to suggest a form of Sociology that allows these sensory methods and modes of thinking as a valuable possibility. Embarrassment or shame are brought about when ideas fail to be recognised; when others refuse to listen. These few snapshots of marginal ideas at Britsoc13 felt like glimmers of hope in amongst the polite small talk, bad vegetarian lunch options and overpriced entrance fee. Yet these thinkers will continue to only throw their ideas against a brick wall if the sociology discipline fails to listen.
I owe much to Sociology, and will always be somewhat grounded, if only through educational socialisation, in a sociological view of the world. I always loved Sociology because it gave me the freedom that other disciplines didn’t. But now I feel constrained and frustrated by Sociology’s limits, where potential radical thought always has to be explained through conservative terms. Particularly as a novice researcher, barely broken in to my PhD, it can seem a dreary and frightening prospect. Luckily I have spent enough time outside academia as well as in to realise the game everyone plays is one you can opt in or out of. I might be old-fashioned in that I came into Sociology wanting to change things and not keep them the same because I saw problems that were being ignored and overlooked. This applies to the inner workings of the discipline too. Conferences that take place in opulent buildings filled with overwhelming numbers of white middle class male faces leave a bad taste in my mouth. John Holmwood in his plenary spoke of readjustment rather than constructing ideals of the future. Indeed a fixed ideal of the future is limiting, but perhaps a fixed desire to maintain the status quo is even more so. There is a paradox as Sociology continues to concern itself with engaging the public and ‘every day life’ we are getting further and further away from the object we are so hurriedly scrabbling toward.
It seems like Sociology needs to ask itself what it thinks makes a life worth living. I am not saying we should cohere on this vision but at least lets have better avenues for dialogue and not bristle so alarmingly at new approaches that delve into the arts and humanities for inspiration. Because in essence is this not the goal of sociological endeavour: to ask what makes a life worth living. A life with less inequality, less discrimination based on gender or colour of one’s skin or age or sexuality, a life that is not prescribed but active, aware and critically engaged. A life of learning, a life made meaningful through felt emotions, affect, attuning to the environment and sensory imaginations. To start thinking this way and asking these questions requires big thinking and being alive to experiences and encounters. Our lives as sociologists are not separate to our work but integral to it. Perhaps then hope lies in those who have yet to become institutionalized into the formal dance of sociology’s discipline requirements. In those still young enough or those outside academia that are able to think big and unashamedly. Hope might also lie in those of us PhD students who risk to take up the challenge to make their PhD a piece of radical sociology, where radical is simply a challenge to normative obligations, that doesn’t seek career progression as the endpoint, that seeks to contribute to a life worth living. I’m prepared for the challenge, the question is, are you?
*This post was kindly reposted on The Sociological Imagination.
Filed under: Academe, PhD chat | Tags: academia, adulthood, ageing, birthday, childhood
In the aftermath of my 26th birthday, I feel an ever more present and pressing demand that I should start acting in ways more appropriate to belonging to the 25-35 age bracket. I have been wondering, should I adopt more mature music tastes? (i.e. less Kylie), should I finally learn how to drive, and should I really find childish Iphone apps so amusing (e.g. hours spent playing with fat/bald/freak/ginger booth)?
Thing is though, I still feel like a big child most of the time, and yet it seems the people around me are all getting younger, rubbing their 21st birthday celebrations in my face (and more upsettingly these people see me as old).
Turning 26 I sense a gulf between what I presumed I would be/feel at 26 (based on others expectations) and how I actually feel and act now as a 26 year old. This disjuncture I feel, is one of the great deceptions of adults to our former child selves, that while we may imitate some adult like posturings we remain on the whole little different from when we were ten years old. Thus in turn fostering the illusion that there is an identifiable evolution from childhood to adulthood, after which you should know how to drive, understand about taxes and only listen to blah ‘credible’ indie music.
Yet I feel I have merely devolved, with adolescence and my early 20s being a diversion into experimenting with dumb ideas and making wrong choices with the wrong people, and simply returning back to my 12 year old self.
There is one profound difference in being an adult though which is the both terrifying and joyous realisation that while as a child you simply did as you were told, as an adult you actually have some authority over your own life and your own choices. This can be a tough responsibility to handle as evidenced on a daily basis as I wander through Goldsmiths campus and survey my fellow students, who with their unkempt hair, ridiculous clothing, diet of microwave meals, (and don’t get me started on hygiene habits) appear unable to make decisions over even the very basic of tasks.
However there are also more fundamental questions that one has to tackle, particularly when life starts to go a little awry. As a child if bad things happen to you, you endure it, because you have no choice or power to control events. Yet I found this sense of powerlessness lingered as I entered into my adult years.
That was until last week when I had a moment of clarity in my Cosmopolitan haze in which I admitted that all my discomfort and melancholic temperament could possibly be a result of forcing myself down a path that was not right for me. I then began to wonder, is there not another way to live? A life more full of hap, and less full of drudge? And further I realised that this life, this freedom, was accessible only through myself, if I wanted my life to change I simply had to learn to make choices.
This realisation also came after reading this which propelled me to question whether I really wanted to continue pursuing a career in academia. I no longer felt I was cut out for the competitiveness, the long arduous hours, the fact you have to study for so long with an ever decreasing chance of obtaining any form of job; and the very real fear of being 35 and still without a permanent university post. I looked at my future and I saw suffocating dismalness and worsening dress sense and bad hair choices (which unfortunately appears to happen to all female academics).
Voicing my concerns has meant I have recieved a mixture of genuinely good advice and well meaning but ultimately unhelpful suggestions. Some suggestions have been that I should simply endure it, that this is simply part of the process, as if my expectations were too high. But is it really preposterous to propose the idea of perhaps you know, being able to enjoy what you are doing?
I also found people asking me “Well what would you do?” – almost as though people in academia cannot imagine a world that exists outside their own. The self-involved bubble of academia had previously been a welcome cushion from the harshness and mundanity of the ‘real’ world, but I had begun to find the world of academia just as harsh and mundane as the world ‘outside’.
The truth was I didn’t really have a reply to “Well what would you do?” because in leaving I didn’t feel like ‘doing’ anything at all. “I just want a simple life” I told my supervisor, and she looked at me with I believe genuine empathy, but also perhaps a little pity for my childish naivety.
Academia had given me so much, it has made me who I am, it has been in my life since 19, and now I was asking – is this it? What would I be without it?, what would I mean, what would life mean, and what would become of me?? My academic achievements are so integral to me as a person, take those away and I actually haven’t achieved much at all. So considering leaving would involve a re-evaluation not only of what I would do with my time but something far more fundamental to my sense of self.
As the years pass I also recognize there are some things I will never achieve. This is not always a negative but it certainly involves a sense of loss, as you have to let go of some of your childish longings and hopes. Ageing becomes a continual process of losing, a grieving of the time and possibilities that will never be.
And so I am left with no delusions of transformation, of finally blossoming, of spouting the false rhetoric of ‘life-changing’ narratives (re Eat, Pray, Love), but the underwhelming acceptance of the banal and appallingly ordinary contingencies of this life I am living through.
This is not as gloomy a picture as it sounds for what is left is the challenge: the challenge of living within a politics of the hap. What form will this take? I have no idea.
But surprisingly, I feel optimistic because this time, I choose freedom.
*ALSO THIS WEEK* I attended a fantastic lecture by my academic hero Nikolas Rose, and my belief and faith in academia was once again rekindled.