independent scholar? not so much

Over the last winter holidays, my son and husband went to Florida for a soccer tournament. I stayed home with Olivia, enjoying a week of rare quiet. The weather, with its curtains of grey, asked us to stay inside. My students, happy for a holiday break from tutoring, asked me to stay home. And Olivia, having just turned 12, asked me to give her some space.

By chance, I had just bought a book, The Renewal of Cultural Studies, edited by Paul Smith. It caught my eye first because the contributors include two of my former professors, but the subject also intrigued me. It addresses the apparent need for Cultural Studies scholars to regroup: to better walk the tightrope that would define the underlying assumptions of their discipline without succumbing to the rigidity of those assumptions. I wonder if a self-consciousness about that conundrum, set out so early in the work, isn’t itself the definition of how to do cultural studies, but regardless, for me, the work promised a review of the current state of the field. I was curious. What had transpired without me?

When I left the academy seven years ago, I did it with the intention of continuing my research. I thought maybe I’d even be an “independent scholar.” I wonder if we all tell ourselves we’ll do this, or if some people walk away with the intention of never looking back, never ever cracking another academic book. I thought I’d regularly browse the CHE; I’d subscribe to a few choice journals; I’d read selected texts.

Nada.

Well, I do read the Chronicle, but I admit there was a chunk of time where I couldn’t even manage that. I threw myself instead into researching dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety so that I could better assist my kids as well as my students. I spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook gluten/dairy/egg-free from scratch for Olivia. I found myself again writing into the wee hours of the morning, this time racing to meet grant (instead of academic) deadlines.

Depending on my mood, reading scholarly work felt laborious, frivolous, luxurious, or even ridiculous. I didn’t have time for any of that. Without the professional imperatives to publish or teach, I couldn’t make that kind of reading a priority.

What really surprised me, however: when I did try to engage with things academic, I found the reading to be painful and isolating. I had been trained to weigh in, either as a student, as a teacher, or as a writer. Without a classroom, a reading group, or a research project, I had no where in which to express myself.

I discovered that I had been silenced.

Yes, technically I could have written papers for journals and conferences, but realistically, for a mother of school-aged kids with two unrelated part-time jobs, that wasn’t happening. For all intents and purposes, I had lost my academic voice. The voices of others, ringing out in classrooms, in journals and in books, simply reminded me of that. Their ideas prompted questions I couldn’t ask, reactions I couldn’t offer, revelations I couldn’t share.

I couldn’t take it.

So I turned my back, happier to pretend those voices didn’t exist.

I don’t know what prompted me to do it, but I started poking around on the internet last fall to see if anything new and interesting popped out at me. That’s how I came across The Renewal. Soon after purchasing it, the circumstances randomly arose which gave me the time and quiet I needed to actually read it.

I sat, just as I always used to, curled in the corner of my couch with a cup of tea, and cracked the binding. I didn’t expect to have a voice anymore. I didn’t expect to weigh in. Instead, I read with the distance of the curious, a thing afforded me, I suppose, by the years that had passed.

I admit, however, that I cringed when I got to the chapter written by graduate students. I could so easily imagine their glee at the coup–their names would appear in an anthology! But really, my envy dissipated quickly into a sort of sickening feeling for them. Perhaps they will become professors who benefit from fair and satisfying working conditions. Perhaps they already have. Regardless, that’s not the case for most grad students, and I know all too well how quickly the victory of publication, which feels so momentous when it happens, can dissolve into irrelevance on a hypercompetitive job market.

So yes, I am still capable of these unhealthy feelings, but my gratitude that the JIL doesn’t concern me anymore ultimately won out. I shut the door on the weird combination of envy and pity that stood, arms folded, on my stoop and simply read their piece and others with a burning interest I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I didn’t get to hash over the essays with anyone. In fact, I didn’t even finish the book. The holiday passed, Steve and Gareth came home, schedules took over. Although The Renewal sits hopefully on my nightstand, it’s not the book I choose when I stumble into bed at midnight after helping Gareth with geometry homework or reading with Olivia for an English project due the next day.

No, I don’t choose it. But you know what? I don’t shelve it either.

I am no longer an academic. I have never been an independent scholar. But I am still an intellectual. I just live in the real world where these scholarly endeavors that can light me up so consistently, feel oh so much like a privilege I still cannot afford.

it wasn’t a conference (thank goodness), it was ‘Listen to Your Mother’

I love the idea of an academic conference: like-minded folks gathered to feed off one another’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Great!

But the reality of it? Not so much.

In my first experience, I presented with a panel of fellow-students from a rhetoric class. Our session occurred on Friday afternoon, before the keynote. Three people attended. Had I really paid all that money for registration fees, lodging, and travel so that I could stand at a lonely podium and listen to the sound of my voice travel unfettered over the cheap and dirty carpet of an unpopulated hotel meeting-room?

I marveled at how nervous I’d been for what turned out to be an exercise in the ridiculous. To rub salt in the wound, a professor of mine presented my ideas as her own in a different session the next day. I listened in stunned silence as her lying cheating voice rang out over the thrumming of my heart.

She didn’t look at me once.

I made three additional conference presentations in my esteemed career. The others were better attended, but still, I’d say I never had more than 30-40 people in a session. Regardless, I’m not sure that it matters. Academic presentations, with their poor delivery and dense verbiage, don’t really aim to inform. Where are the visual aids and the eye contact? Where are the PowerPoints people?

The academy cheapens conferences by emphasizing quantity over quality. Like the imperative to publish, the imperative to present funnels scholars into the conference circuit like Sneetches lined up for a turn in the star-on machine. They come, in large part, to get their bellies stamped.

I actually have no complaint about the jargon, or the theory, or the nit-picky citations of the scholarly work I did. I loved all that stuff. The problem isn’t the work itself, it’s the perpetual isolation of the scholar–the fact that this work so rarely gets translated to the mainstream. The imperative to publish and present keeps scholars from participating in less formal venues.  It also creates a glut of scholarly work–more than the scholars themselves could ever consume.

So who’s it all for?

Certainly not the public. Ironically, unfair university hiring practices could help to blur these hard-drawn lines between academics and the mainstream. As universities shed new Ph.Ds. like so many flakes of old skin, they force intellectuals out into the real world where they have no choice but to mingle and work–in numbers. That is interesting!

Of course, I’m one of those folks.

I’m happy to say I haven’t given a conference presentation in something close to ten years, but I did get up in front of an audience to make a very different kind of presentation this past weekend. I read a four-minute piece called the boys next door in the DC production of a show called, Listen to Your Mother. It recounts a conversation I had with my teen son about rape culture, college parties, and friendship.

I didn’t need a bibliography or the Chicago Manual of Style to pull it off. I didn’t use any jargon. I didn’t cite Foucault, Derrida or even Freud in the telling. But I’ll say that even with years of scholarly untraining in the art of public speaking, I did make eye-contact, and I did invoke my audience (no PowerPoint, however!). I wish I could say I was spectacular, but before long, a video will emerge. I’m afraid it will tell its own story, whatever that may be.

Despite having rejected so much else about academia, however, you can bet that when formulating my ideas about this piece, I drew on the things I learned in graduate school. Theories about discipline, the gaze, the unconscious, and a healthy understanding of oppressive binaries such as good/bad, male/female, virgin/whore and agent/object.

I hope that doesn’t surprise you. Although university life serves up its fair share of humiliations, the departure doesn’t happen like a layoff. The provost doesn’t force you to leave your files locked in cabinets while he/she escorts you out of the building like a criminal. You get to take the knowledge with you!  In fact, you can’t help but do so, right?

Nearly 300 people attended this year’s Listen to Your Mother Show. That means I addressed more people in those few minutes than I did in all four of my conference presentations combined (and I’m pretty sure we could throw in my scholarly readership as well). Not only did I get to share my ideas with this much broader audience, but I also had the chance to learn from them and my fellow cast members.

Motherhood has long been the thorn in the side of feminism–the thing we have forever struggled to reconcile with our ideals of equality and independence. We can theorize, expound, and pontificate about this dilemma at feminist theory conferences and in feminist journals, but that won’t be enough. We’d also be wise to round out our research and “listen to [our] mother[s].”

I felt so privileged to share the stage with a group of people brought together, not by our varying degrees or professional credentials, but by our desire to share our thoughts about motherhood (thoughts that are surely also informed by our varying degrees and professional credentials). From stories of what happens to the body of a childbearing or breastfeeding woman, to what happens to the heart and soul of a parent who loses a child, to struggles with the race and gender stereotypes our kids face, to the recognition of the humanity, vulnerability and power of our own mothers, to struggles with anxiety, the “empty nest,” the shape of the family, and the gender of the “mom,” to the downright hilarity of the mundane, this show brought not just the joy and pain of motherhood to life, but the very philosophical and intellectual aspects of parenting fully into light.

If we want mothers to enjoy equity, respect and independence in our society, then our first step should be to truly understand what motherhood means.  “Giving Mother’s Day a microphone,” as Listen to Your Mother aims to do, takes a big step in that direction, and I was so honored to be part of it (and not cloistered in a conference room somewhere reading monotonously for 25 whole pages to nobody but a blank wall!).

Listen to Your Mother shows occur in cities across the country every spring.  Check out their main page for a show near you!