Monday, December 08, 2008

PhD Reflections #4

For seventeen years my professional life was predicated on assessing and analyzing situations quickly and determining next actions and executing those actions with a particular smoothness and efficiency. In addition, I was almost always in the role of an advocate. It was my job to help to define what was good for “us” (usually queers) and to promote those ideas to the exclusion of the ideas of those who were against “us.” The truth is, in many ways, I like being an advocate. There is a sense of righteousness and justice in the position. Being an advocate, however, generally is predicated on a partial view and on constructing and advancing that particular partial view for others to adopt and accept. Given my experience as an advocate, I feel like the intellectual skills of advocacy are a strength that I bring to scholarly work. While these intellectual skills have important strengths in the world, they have particular limitations and weaknesses in the academic world.
Initially the weaknesses of advocacy were most evident in the rhetoric of my writing. As in, this is a little “too strident,” or to quote Keats as a beloved mentor did many times, “this poem has designs on me.” I realized through a painful struggle that the rhetoric of the advocate, while always a language I could be comfortable with and use in the right contexts, would have to become secondary to another rhetoric. Now, I am having parallel thoughts, not only about my writing but about the very nature of my thinking. I reassure myself that I’ll always be able to think as an advocate, if I choose to, and to appreciate that particular mode of thinking and being, but I want to be able to apprehend things differently as a scholar. I want to think more broadly and have a world less circumscribed by sharply drawn positions of what is right and how meaning should be ascribed at this particular moment. This has many consequences for me. First, this mode of thinking takes longer. In my previous professional life, I was paid to assess a situation quickly, articulate a position immediately and succinctly, and then work to make that position understood by a wide variety of constituents. In scholarly work, while there continues to be pressures of time, the time spreads not from minutes and hours, but to days and months. In scholarly work, the mode of thinking is about rattling around different ideas in a variety of locations and listening to different people and reading different people. This mode of thinking is about asking more questions and having fewer answers and fewer predetermined positions. In one way, I come to most of my reading in this program with an agenda, to determine what this reading can mean to me and my work, but in another way, I come with no agenda because I’ve given up the agenda of the advocate. I’m less interested in finding work that confirms what I believe or supports my position. I’m more interested in understanding what these other spaces and positions are about.
While ultimately I believe that this method of thinking is a productive one for me to pursue, it is getting me into lots of hot water this term. The other week in my feminist history class, we read The Politics of the Womb by Lynn Thomas. In this book, Thomas tells a history of Kenya related to genital incision and abortion. She does not take the position that genital incision or cutting are bad, what I would characterize as an advocacy position, rather she writes the history of how it happened and what it meant for people in the Meru districts. The book is almost denuded of any advocacy position. The material is difficult both because she is a trenchant historian and it covers an area and history with which I have no familiarity; it’s also difficult because of the content and Thomas’ refusal to label the practice as female genital mutilation, a move which would make the content more familiar. One of my classmates struggled with the book for Thomas’ refusal to reflect on the act of genital cutting; I’m sympathetic to her reading and her frustration, and I certainly understand this classmate’s position as an advocate. I know that advocacy position, however, so what I wanted to explore in my mind and through discussion is what does it mean to not take that position? What does it mean to not take an advocacy role or have a particular feminist conclusion about what is right and what is wrong?
        Well, part of what it means is that a lot of new information and ways of thinking come to the fore. This I like. Another part of what it means is that people make as a result of your/my discussion contributions particular sets of assumptions about your/my politics, and often your/my analysis of power. This I like less. I like most fancy myself as a person with a particular political analysis that will resonant with like-minded people. I find myself, however, less engaged in wanting to assert that resonance and more engaged with wanting to explore new ways of thinking outside the advocacy mindset. In the long term, I know that my political loyalties need to be explicit and identifiable by allies, but in the short term, I’m most invested in learning to think in new ways and outside the confines, for the time being, of the advocate.

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