May 012008

[Originally published on Familiar Strangers blog]

For our self-reflection paper we were supposed to create a questionnaire for ourselves about our learning in this last semester. I toyed with this format, but then abandoned it for something that worked better for me for reasons which will be obvious when you read it. Of special significance in this post is the first-time ever publication of my resignation letter from grad schools past. It is slightly embarrassing in the same way watching Rushmore is embarrassing. But it was time to let it be read 🙂 Enjoy.

Research is a road and the road is life

This is a story, rather than an interview. Oh, I know that I am supposed to interview myself for this assignment, but the format wasn’t working for me, and, as you will see, narratives are central to my research journey. So please forgive this minor transgression and let me tell you my story.

A little over ten years ago, I concluded my Master’s thesis on the feminine sublime with a quote from Jack Kerouac. In my thesis, I looked at alternative structures of narratives, ones that were circular and suspended and which had no ending as such. It is the journey of the narrative and not its conclusion was what was important to these authors. The Kerouac quote – “the road is life” – therefore seemed a fitting way to end my thesis. In retrospect, however, this was the beginning of the unravelling of my academic plans. It marked a slowly awakening realization that the road that I was on that time was not taking me to the life which I wanted to lead.

Nevertheless, it took another year or so for me to arrive at the turning point. I used my scholarship money to finance a year of study in Germany, a move somewhat deliberately designed to force my own hand in the matter of my future career. Being away, I figured, would force me to think about where I actually wanted to be. Not surprisingly, my uneasiness with my academic journey grew, and almost ten years ago to this day (god, I love this symmetry), I wrote my resignation letter and handed in to my only possible witness at that time, a young, unsuspecting German professor. My “letter” was in fact an essay about a canonical German novel by Goethe — The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was also — and this is the radical part — an account of an impossible love affair that I was experiencing at that time of profound professional and personal doubt. It is, without question, one of my masterpieces (notwithstanding the fact that time has rendered my account of that love affair to be rather embarrassing). It was honest, it was passionate, and it was me.

My “letter” was not, however, anything that could remotely be considered acceptable research in academic circles. But why not? Because it was honest, passionate and personal. And that was my point exactly. Back then, post-modernism and critical theory were fashionable trends in literary criticism. These modes of thought call into question notions of objectivity, authority, reality and truth. However, this theory which I was being taught and which, to a large extent, I espoused, did not match the methodology of literary criticism that was being practised. Everything is subjective except the practice of literary criticism, or so it seemed to me. This lack of subjective space in the practice of research coupled with the undeniable abstraction of my chosen academic field (Comparative Literature) did me in. I could not negotiate the mixed messages which simultaneously promoted creative thinking but limited it to certain forms. So I left academia for an uncertain future where any internal inconsistencies were mine and mine alone.

Flash forward to the present. I had mostly forgotten about my epistemological angst of a decade ago. I had long since buried my resignation letter in a box in a closet. My thesis sits on a shelf unread and incomprehensible, even to me. For the most part, I like what life has thrown me in the last decade – a good job with the federal government, a kind, supportive, quite wonderful partner and a lovely child. However, the call of learning and books has been too strong for me to resist completely. I found myself back in a graduate program and ultimately taking a course on research methodology.

For obvious reasons, I came to the course with certain expectations and prejudices against the scientific method and the practice of research. I was surprised to find a methodological openness which allowed for students to align their epistemological inclinations with their research methodology. Every perspective is valued. What a refreshing change from the methodological tyranny of my previous degree! This approach quickly diffused a lot of my obsessively thought-out criticism which I intended to unleash on the course. In addition, I found this approach to be honest and respectful of the diversity of students, their interests and their backgrounds. I applaud those who designed this course.

This openness may not, however, solve my fundamental epistemological problem with academic research. I feel an obligation to respond to the Nancy of ten years past who passionately argued for her right as a researcher to tell her own personal journey. “If we absorb the lessons of post-structuralism,” I proclaimed, “one cannot really argue for the supremacy of one discourse over another. The narrative of my life and my experiences is a discourse like any other discourse used to provide insight into a literary work.” Yes, yes, indeed! I still believe these words. More importantly, I believe personal stories have a power to inspire, a quality often lacking in the objective voice of the scientific paper. Am I wrong to think that maybe this power of the personal narrative can be used to make research more readable, more interesting and more relevant?

When I re-entered graduate school, I promised myself that I would chose to do a final project for this degree which was practical. My partner is a practical man who has found a way to use his brilliant mind to help make the world a better place. I admire this and I want to emulate his example. When our instructor encouraged us to consider our research topics, I paused on the practical. I could easily think up a neat quantitative study which would presumably contribute in a minor way to thinking on important issues such as web usability. But then, I remembered. I remembered that I have my doubts about objectivity and the scientific method. I remembered that those doubts make me uneasy and that the uneasiness, although it starts as a whisper, has the very real potential to end as a long, passionate essay unleashed on some poor undeserving and unsuspecting assistant professor. So while my partner has found a way to use statistics for the greater good (oh, I am quite well aware of the irony in my choice of partners!), I think that this is not my path. My “practical” ideas got quickly abandoned for a topic in which I am quite passionately interested and in which I am a participant: family story-telling on the Internet. My intention is to interweave my own experiences with those of others who practice this craft and to marry these accounts with academic thinking on this subject. While this topic may not have workplace relevance, I am hoping that it will take me on a journey that will end in an interesting, and provocative paper that people, not just academics, will want to read.

The problem is, of course, that this story-telling approach to research straddles the line between qualitative research and some cerebral form of journal writing. It is just as unlikely now as it was ten years ago that my style of academic writing and research will be accepted as legitimate. Fortunately, there does seem to be a small group of academics who practice a qualitative model of research called “radical self-questioning”. This gives me hope that I can find support for my style and I intend to learn more about this methodology. I am old enough now, however, to know that there will be a compromise here. I do want to get this degree and I am toying with the idea of a PhD. I will have to choose the places in which to use my voice and hope that my small stabs at authenticity might strike a chord. In the end, I think that this is where my strength and my power as a researcher and a thinker lie. And I am convinced that to follow my strength and passion can only result in good things and, hopefully, good stories.

 Posted by at 4:30 pm

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