Monday, November 03, 2008

PhD Reflections #2

With four weeks into the semester, I think I should easily be able to list the things that challenge what I know and confirm what I know, but I struggle with generating such a list. I think part of the struggle is the inculcation into graduate school over the previous two years which has taught me a great deal to set aside my knowledge and explore new knowledge, not from the perspective of how does it confirm or challenge me, but how does it transform me through the engagement with it. With this framework, I can easily point to a variety of readings that have transformed me through this semester. One of the areas I am trying to read closely and consciously within is related to race and how race and the social structures around race are constructed, sustained, and transformed. I’ve found Peggy Pascoe’s work on miscegenation law incredibly meaningful in this exploration as well as the different ways of writing about race from West and Fenstermaker and Omi and Winant. These works, each coming from different disciplinary locations, provide me vital fodder for my thinking about race, though I find myself still very much in the muck and with few conclusions of my own. What I do know and have confirmed through my work this semester is that thinking about race and using lenses that ask how does this work engage telling histories and stories of people of color is important and I want to be a central part of my scholarly work. Though in this confirmation remains the challenge for myself of how that will actually happen.
I find the more creative expressions about race so far from this semester most interesting and provocative. From Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman to Octavia Butler’s Kindred to Compensation and Jennifer González’s thoughtful explication of Renée Green’s body of work, I find new and provocative ways to think about race and how it works in creative and artistic projects. The works challenge because they demand engagement to explore and really think through critically how race is being used in the works and what the work is saying about larger circulations of race in our society. The existence of this work also confirms for me the importance and possibilities of engaging such questions in a body of creative and artistic work.
With regard to new directions for my own thinking, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the creation of knowledges and the theories that underpin the production, distribution, and disseminations of knowledges. I have a penchant for theory, but am suspect of “the linguistic turn” in theory in the past two decades and particularly the sorts of work that it has produced. While on one hand, I find the work of Butler, for instance, as one who is deeply engaged in linguistic and philosophic theoretical configurations, compelling. As I read her work I am again impressed by how she grounds it in useful frameworks for making it applicable and meaningful to political conversations. At the same time, I see Butler’s work being used by many scholars to generate work that is not as responsive to constructing and acting on a political agenda. Reading Alaimo and Hekman’s Material Feminisms, I’ve been challenged to examine how theoretical apparati are shaping work and to think about my own work in more material ways. While I find these theoretical works interesting, I ask myself regularly, how do I use this in my own work and to what degree do I want to engage in theory? Lately, I’ve been trying to think about my work as “theoretically informed, but not theoretically engaged.” This formulation came about in part from hearing Dr. Dill speak in response to a question about positioning her work in relationship to Jasbir Puar. She responded that that was “not a theoretical dialogue I engage in.” I found this refreshing and opening a new way of thinking about work, one where choices are made regularly and strategically about what work to do and how to position the work.
Increasingly in my reading during the semester, I am noting how significant the terms of engagement that scholars set for their work are. The framework of projects, including what material to consider, what material not to consider, what is the audience, how are personal experiences used or excluded, what stake the author has in the work, what political significance the work could have, interest me intensely. It seems to me that as much as the research that scholars do and the thinking and writing that they do in relationship to the research is important, a large part of that importance is shaped not in the research, thinking, and writing itself, but in the framework of the project. For instance, Joann Meyerowitz in her book, How Sex Changed, mounts an important history of transsexuality in the 20th century United States. What she doesn’t include in the book is a sustained consideration of the medical communities and their impact on constructions of transsexuality. Anne Fausto-Sterling, on the other hand, grounds her work in the body, biology, and medicine. While Fausto-Sterling doesn’t produce a history, she does produce a wonderful interdisciplinary study of sexuality and the body. Both of these books explore similar issues, but each take the work in different directions. Initially, I thought that the differences were disciplinary, but in thinking further about the books, I see the disciplinary difference, but I also see a different theoretical and intellectual framework at play in each of the books and wonder if that is as significant – or more – than the disciplinary differences.
        There are two dilemmas, or dissonances, that are uppermost in my mind as I write this. First, the issue of time, and second, the myth of comprehensivity. On time, I am increasing thinking about both the significance of time to the production of work, both scholarly and creative, and about how time should be thought about and “managed” in this world. As a worker in a variety of organizations, time management was my mantra. There were days of scheduled meetings, task lists, and projects. In some ways, this work is similar, but there is a greater need for ruminative time – the time to read, reflect, and have space for generative work. Creating that ruminative time and using that time is a new skill to learn. There is another aspect of time that I’ve been thinking about and coming to understand as well. I’m thinking about it as perspectival time. Perspectival time is the arc of distance from thinking and writing for perspective, which ultimately should yield new insight and/or confirmation of previous thoughts and work. Finding a balance between these two types of time, ruminative time and perspectival time, which each have different valences while balancing them with skills of time management that can continue to drive work forward through the creation of milestones is something that feels like a dilemma for me at this time, or at least an observation that comes out of a feeling of discomfort and change.
        Martha Nell Smith reminded me to banish the myth of comprehensivity and to focus on building the archive of my own knowledge and work to make it as deep and wide as I need and want it to be. Comprehensivity is hard to give up, though. It is the allure of graduate school; the notion that an intense and in-depth period of time and study will result in mastery of some particular area. Martha says, this is a myth. She says, she has studied Dickinson for over thirty years and has more questions now than when she began. This desire to gain extensive knowledge, even comprehensive knowledge is alluring and with Martha’s admonishment, it becomes a tension to be managed. The outcome I’m desiring now is the capacity to pursue intensive study with the zeal for being comprehensive but with the self-awareness that such comprehensiveness will never be achieved.

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