The History of My Ideas

Over at Mictlantecuhtli | Writing in Memory of Paulo Freire, Profacero has a very interesting post on the nature of our research and professions, and on those epiphanic moments when lightbulbs popped, and we knew this was what we’d want to do for the rest of our lives.

Of course, as she points out, the consequence of such epiphanies are shaped by our social contexts, and the norms and expectations governing our interests:

everywhere but in the United States, where speaking foreign languages leads to the study of literature, people take me for a qualitative social scientist.

Which neatly sums up the brief history of my own research.

When I was in middle school, I wrote an article about the riots and communal tension rife in my country. There was a lot of disillusionment, anger and bitter disappointment in that article, unleashed by the realisation that India, as I had been taught to imagine it, was a glossy, fragile myth. The land of my birth was too diverse, and too deeply mired in contesting histories and different ideological desires to be a nation, the way our Civics textbook defined ‘nation’.

At college, I wrote a paper on the structure of multicultural (and multispecies, naturally) fantasy worlds. It studied centres of commerce in a specific series, looking at the interactive behaviour of competing institutions from competing cultures, each with different motivations for complementary actions and widely disparate ideas of a desirable final goal. It went into identity, its construction, its varieties, and its role as an economic motivator. I couldn’t bring myself to stop — this was so incredibly real! It was the life I lived everyday, the life no one seemed willing to examine as a comprehensive whole, only as isolated bits and pieces.Why were people so stoopid?

In short, I was the quintessential undergrad — just-enough-read to set the brain fizzing, brimming with perfectly obvious ‘discoveries’, contemptuous of the world’s apparent blindness, and awed by my own brilliance.

Finally, knee-deep in secondary texts and nowhere in sight of an ending, I realised I had overshot the suggested upper-limit by twenty double-spaced pages. Immediate and ruthless editing followed.

Years later, on a different continent, I was told this episode was indexical of an unhealthy obsession with unsocial pursuits — to wit, reading science fiction and fantasy — but as someone whose unedited undergrad term paper got her into the sole doctoral programme she applied to, I was able to magnanimously rise above the implications of this genre-prejudice.

It was moving continents, however, that brought home the realisation that while I have a clearly-defined area of research, I don’t exactly have a discipline, especially not by the traditional standards of my blessed motherland. All my work always orients itself to political economy and institutional behaviour, sometimes against my express efforts. The qualitative/theoretical bits of the political economy part were well-served by my undergraduate department, the absolutely brilliant JUDE (which merits a post in itself). The other half, I tried to make up for by reading through undergraduate Economics and Sociology syllabi on my own.

On the one hand, my transcripts bear the bruises of my divided attention. On the other, I learnt a great deal more than I had ever expected out of any one honours degree.

This interdisciplinary variety in my initial years, however, is probably why I have shuttled between departments — brilliant and mediocre, flexible and rigid — since, and never been quite satisfied anywhere. It’s also why I have decided to take a break from completing my PhD, and focused my research in hands-on development practices (even if it is self-conscious ‘development’ with a capital ‘D’).

Despite its own institutional rigidities, Development is more accommodative of the syncretism I’ve been trained by my social context to practise. At Pratichi, I can connect cultural, gendered, religious, economic, linguistic and production patterns to health, nutrition, education or growth, and no one feels compelled to tell me my research would be ‘better’ if I eliminated the ‘unquantifiable’ and therefore unnecessary variables, or conversely, the ‘dead numbers’ and ‘cold science’.

This is not to say I’ve given up on academia. Quite the reverse. Universities and a doctoral programme are where I’d prefer to be. But that grail, I fear, will require considerable detective work and matching of research algorithms to find. And right now, I’m busy — as the lesser ivory-tower members might say — getting my hands dirty.

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8 comments

  1. The right program, I guess, or the right supervisor. It’s hard to tell from here and my thoughts are fragmented because I’m so tired.

    I’m cross disciplinary but in many US institutions now that’s a money saving mantra more than an intellectual attitude, and it can mean superficiality (having no discipline, or simply using materials corresponding to a variety of traditional disciplines). Which isn’t what I mean by it.

    There’s also the question of knowing your subject but not having the means to really do the work, which is my situation. That’s when one’s second set of interests becomes more viable, perhaps, in terms of getting one at least closer to what one really wants to do.

    • “There’s also the question of knowing your subject but not having the means to really do the work”

      How do you mean?

      My experience with this has been not meeting institutional expectations of expertise. I remember wanting to take a perfectly simple course on Econometrics at my US uni, and the instructor turned me down because I didn’t have any maths courses in my undergrad.

      Now, in India, you don’t get to take maths courses during your BA/BSc unless you’re enrolled in an undergraduate course in Mathematics. But it turned out everything he wanted as a prerequisite had been covered by our highschool mathematics syllabus. However, from a paperwork point of view, the actual tools in my tool-kit weren’t important, what was important was that I had Maths 101 courses in my college transcripts. So that was that.

      In a way, I’m auditing the MPhil course right now as a way to legitimise things I already know, because the dismissal of actual knowledge for lack of a stamp of approval is getting tedious 😦

      • Means: I work at an institution which has not been able to acquire books for its library this century and which has no research funding, and heavy teaching loads. Politics are bad and salaries are low. So it is hard to even get access to research materials and atmospheres, and most of what I teach is out of field. So nominally I am doing what I am “supposed” to do but actually it does not resemble what I am interested in at all.

  2. As you know this has the story of my academic trajectory. I thought I’d found the perfect interdisciplinary programme for my PhD. Yet, very quickly I realized that I had to tailor my research to the appropriate frameworks to make them eligible for funding. I’ve since realized that institutions tend to pigeonhole by design and if one is to be completely satisfied in one’s pursuit of any area of knowlede it’s best to have a go at it on one’s own. These days, with the sort of resources at our disposal I often find myself wondering if these behemoth universities are at all relevant to modern knowledge gathering.

    • It all boils down to funding, doesn’t it. I should know 🙂

      I am all for institutional structure to education — even the most rigorous self-study needs a directing hand or two, I think — but having acquired a large chunk of my education on my own, I definitely see your point.

      On a related note: I miss being a doctoral programme for the academic environment and like-minded peer groups, but these days, most of all, I miss it because it would have afforded me a couple of years of study and research, without having to think of balancing a full-time job and earning a living.

  3. Gods, this.

    I think I blame JUDE myself, at least in part. I’d always known I wanted to study English lit; it seemed, for someone as obsessed with stories as I was, the obvious, inevitable, route. And for all that SukChau warned us that liking stories was no reason to study literature, three years od JUDE did nothing at all to disillusion me, really. I mean, I knew there was a lot of literary theory, and I knew it was important to read that, but… it never really seemed essential, I suppose.

    But getting away from literature seemed such a relief. I hadn’t expected that in any way. Just. Felt like I was engaging with stories again after ages. That’s why Sociolinguistics (hopefully). I’d started in on Linguistics in part because I wanted a clearer understanding of how Language worked, so I could tackle Middle English better. But then I realised that all the papers I’d written in three years of undergrad were at least as much, maybe more, Sociolinguistics papers as they were English literature–they were all about how a work talks of the people producing it, how any bit of literature speaks to the culture of the creator.

    I dunno. Maybe Cultural Studies would have been a better fit still.

    • Well, your current uni has one of the country’s best departments of Cultural Studies — you can certainly switch for your MPhil, if academia is where you want to eventually be?

      I am a little suspicious of departments like Cultural Studies and Gender/Women’s Studies, probably because I didn’t grow up with them, and when I did encounter the ideas, they were presented as analytical tools of existing areas of study — like sociology, or literary theory, or anthropology (I’d say of economics too, but the consensus is not yet in favour). Lack of familiarity can be a stubborn source of prejudice.

      I think the reason your JUDE experience is so different from mine is because JUDE offers its undergraduates a dazzling array of choice compared to other universities hereabouts, despite the compulsory core courses. One can specialise without quite realising it, and it only strikes one after one has moved onto a more traditional and regimented institution. And I think you and I both specialised quite a bit.

  4. One can specialise without quite realising it, and it only strikes one after one has moved onto a more traditional and regimented institution.

    No, see, I did realise I was specialising. It’s just, my area of study hasn’t really changed; or needn’t really change, though it has expanded a fair bit. It’s the alteration in discipline that’s a bit unsettling. I would never have considered Sociolinguistics a possibility, because I’d always thought linguistics was basically etymology (haha bloodyha), so there’s that. Gender Studies departments I still give a bit of a side-eye, given the only one I’ve seen in operation has been rather more coven-like than I like.

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