Academia as storytelling: the intellectual process, narrative theory and #realacademicbios

Recently, I have not been writing or tweeting much original content. This is because I feel so focused on my thesis that I feel like most other kinds of expression are just going to take creative energy away from me. Of course, I have been proven wrong, time and time again, mostly because I failed to understand my own creative, and thereby, my intellectual process.

Since about October 2015, I have written about 3 solid chapters for my masters thesis. I thought I’d be able to race through the whole project by December, but then I hit a wall. I had already done significant reading to formulate my hypotheses and arguments, but the more I looked at the blocks of texts that inspired these ideas, the more immobilized and powerless I felt when trying to organize them. I spent a couple of days just editing quotes and trying to find some structure to them that I could impose, so I could correctly illustrate my ideations.

While this was happening, I also went on a date with a professional musician. This guy, despite his successes, seemed intimidated by me (!), and my perceived academic merits, but when he asked me about my research project and the kind of questions I was trying to answer, I was the one who stumbled, and felt like I was not conveying myself very well. When my date talked about himself, I admired the way that he could communicate his story to me. He talked about the ways he used emotion in his work in musical productions. It was as if he was speaking a different language, a language very different from the academese I am so used to — I could never figure out exactly the role of emotionality in academic projects, but I felt so lost anyway, it got me thinking. I knew that it was the approach I really needed in my academic work.

Instead of finishing my thesis as I had hoped to by the end of December, I instead threw myself into what I’d now like to call “narrative research”. I watched hours of TV, movies and documentaries, and I got in touch with my literary sensibilities through Patti Smith’s new memoir M Train. I really wanted to know how I could get out of this creative dryness, and as a result of general winter blues and lethargy, all I could really do other than spending time with people was consuming a lot of Netflix and read for pleasure. It didn’t have an immediate or even a noticeable effect to get my gears turning. It is after I had completely left my academic projects — given up, at least temporarily, that I had any kind of breakthrough.

Before the holidays in December, I had told my supervisor about how I felt stuck. She said that perhaps I was writing my thesis in somewhat of a premature state, that I needed to do a bit more reading, thinking and meditating to give final shape to my writings. She suggested I read a little bit about Arthur Frank’s methodology of dialogical narrative analysis. Frank uses insights from literary theory, as well as his own experience dealing with medical patients, and his recovery from cancer, to understand how illness narratives function. In my work dealing with cultural understandings of Lyme disease, I have been reading hundreds of accounts of people’s experiences, but was really looking for was a comprehensive means to speak to the essence of these stories, these experiences and these persons behind the illness. Dialogical narrative analysis provided exactly that. Frank explains the basic rationale behind the method:

  • First, what multiple voices can be heard in any single speaker’s voice; how do these voices merge, and when do they contest each other?
  • Second, what makes stories distinct from other forms of narration; what counts as a story, and what does not?
  • Third, why is someone choosing to tell a story, among other expressive possibili- ties? What particular capacities of stories does the storyteller seek to utilize?
  • Fourth, what stakes does the storyteller have riding on telling this story, at this time, to these listeners? Or as I prefer to phrase it, How is the storyteller hold- ing his or her own in the act of storytelling? By holding one’s own, I mean seeking to sustain the value of one’s self or identity in response to whatever threatens to diminish that self or identity. Groups also hold their own by means of their stories; thus, how do stories create group identities and boundaries.

I was excited to be using this methodology because it gave me an improved framework of understanding stories, and using affect and emotions as tools to examine the multiple voices (which Frank later characterizes as heteroglossia and polyphony), not unlike what a writer, playwright, screenwriter, actors or any kind of auteurs may use for their creative productions. Finally, I had made a connection between my academic work and the kind of “emotional work” my musician date had talked about.

Fast forward to yesterday: I found a real-time use of dialogical narrative analysis through the voices of academia in large. Through the hashtag #realacademicbios, plenty of academics on Twitter explained their struggles through real and sometimes fictionalized versions of themselves. The hashtag was originally started by one Eve Mroczek, an assistant professor of religious studies at UC Davis with the following tweet.

What followed was the outpouring of stories of academics, including many that were women and minorities.

If I were to use dialogical narrative analysis to understand these voices, it would appear that the majority of the experiences of academics, regardless of where they are in their career, diverges significantly from the archetype of the well-commensurated white male with a supportive wife and 2.3 kids in tow, living in a bucolic New England university town. Indeed, most academics experience precariousness in their jobs, but those coming from racialized groups, especially women, face numerous unique challenges. I cannot claim to experience too many of these, as I am still very low on the academic rung, and I think I am quite privileged to work with academics that value me as a person and I am not in great financial stress due to my studies. Sadly, for a large number of graduate students and even working academics, this is simply not true

It is my hope that we understand what we are doing through the exercises such as the communal catharsis brought on by the #realacademicbios hashtag. Through my interactions with a number of fine and performing artists, my own experience in academia and my current engagement with theory, I believe I have come across something that binds academics together with the rest of humanity. That is, academia is simply a specialized form of storytelling. Our research involves finding new ways to tell old stories, casting stories through different perspectives, contexts and times, and finding completely new stories altogether. However, while we are doing this, in the interest of our community and our own well-beings, let us not put aside our own stories, deny our own experiences of difficulties in securing well-paid and good jobs in our fields, and standing up for ourselves in any way that we can. The status quo of the lone wolf genius white male academic can only be subverted by bringing our divergent stories into light. Let us not ignore this call to contribute to the narrative of academic life, so that ourselves and those who come after us can experience better living and working conditions.

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