what does it mean to belong?

Next week is the 8th anniversary of living in my house in South Minneapolis. It’s a pretty big deal for me since I moved around a lot as a kid. The longest (as a kid or adult) that I’ve lived in one place before now is 5 years. This upcoming anniversary has prompted me to revisit a question that shaped much of my graduate work: what does it means to belong (to a place, a community, an identity, etc)?

One tentative response:

Beside/s: Fall thoughts on the academy

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not teaching this fall. It’s the first time that I haven’t been in school in the fall as a teacher or student for 33 years. Will I ever want to go back? I’m not sure. For now, I’m taking some time to think through my relationship with the academy/academic industrial complex (AIC). Here are a few things about the state of the AIC that I’ve recently encountered online. When I put them beside each other, they make me think that higher education is a fundamentally broken system:

1. A tweet about the dismal job market:

2. A post about the terrible process of trying to get an academic job. Here’s one excerpt:

The more I talk with PhDs around the country, the more I learn that my husband’s and my situation isn’t that, um, unique. There are PhDs who have secure jobs but who live thousands of miles from their families; PhDs who resemble nomads moving from state to state after their lectureships and VAPs have ended; PhDs who have given up on academia altogether because of the poor job market, the politics, and the bad taste it has left in their mouths; PhDs who cobble together a “salary” by adjuncting at 2-4 different schools (often miles apart); and PhDs who live on unemployment (until it runs out), with no insurance, and no extra income from a spouse or partner to help make ends meet. As a professor tweeted earlier this week, “Academia is such a racket.”

At the end of her post, Kelli Marshall writes: “academia is indeed a racket, and it is flawed on many levels. But I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy publishing (most of the time). And I don’t think I’m willing to surrender just yet, as this “old” PhD still has some things to offer.” I’m not sure that I could say the same. Increasingly, I feel that the academic is more than flawed. It’s broken. And I’m confident that there are other spaces for me to teach and write and engage.

3. A report that Emory University, where I earned my Ph.D in Women’s Studies, is closing their ILA (Graduate Institute for Liberal Arts) program. It’s very sad to see such an exciting learning space (I took several ILA classes) being shut down. Here’s part of their explanation:

Forman acknowledges that the departments and programs most impacted by these changes have made “important and fundamental contributions to our campus, and they have passionate supporters…. There is nothing about this process that has been easy. However, we have a primary obligation to our students to allocate resources in a way that will allow Emory College of Arts and Sciences to train leaders of the century to come. Emory students — both at the undergraduate and graduate level — have the right to assume that they have access to a world-class education regardless of the course of study that they choose here, even if that ultimately means that we cannot support all of the possible choices.”

So, what does the future of the academy look like? How can they train students to be future leaders and provide them with “access to world-class education”? Get rid of interdisciplinary programs that give students the important skills and tools for learning how to do interdisciplinary work. As I posted in my tweet about this news report: Ugh!

the Shit rock

As I write this blog post, in my peripheral vision, just below my screen and fairly close to my keyboard, is a rock. My Shit rock. It used to be my mom’s. I believe (but I can’t quite remember whether or not it’s true) that it was on her desk in her studio. When she died, this rock was one of a handful of her objects that I chose to take.

I’m fascinated by this rock. It’s pretty ugly and really ridiculous. But, it makes me curious and it conjures up images/visions/feelings of my mom and who she was how I remember her. Why did my mom have this rock? How did she get it? Did she buy it as a souvenir on one of our rare vacations? Was it a present from a past student? A gag gift? What did she think about when she looked at it? Did she laugh?

My mom was an artist, an identity she didn’t really claim until she went back to school in her mid 50s and earned a BFA in fiber arts. Her studio spaces—she had many different ones because she and my dad moved a lot in the last decade of her life—were always filled with quotes from artists, inspirational words, framed cross-stitchings (like, “of all things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most”), images torn out of magazines and various art supplies. Amidst all of these items was the Shit rock. Was this rock somehow inspiring to my mom? Did it provide her with an outlet for the frustration she experienced as an artist who was constantly doing battle with the Censor, that voice inside her that repeatedly told her she wasn’t good enough? Was it a way for her to represent her feisty and playful spirit? To poke fun at her own penchant for “pretty” knick-knacks?

All of these questions makes me want to craft a digital story about the rock and what it means for me and my memories of/connections to my mom. Much like the digital story that I crafted about my first grade progress report last spring, this story about the rock would enable me to experiment with being curious about an object.

There are all sorts of ways that I could discuss how my mom’s “shit” rock, especially with it’s flowery font, is meaningful to me. And all sorts of images and ideas that it conjures up. Here are two “shit” examples that probably won’t make it into my digital story:

1. RJP’s classic line to me in a public bathroom a few years ago:


2. A few images from a Tumblr focused on “beautiful swearwords”

Fall is here!

Last week, I declared that summer was over. For the past 33 years, since I was 5, the end of summer signaled the beginning of a new school year for me, either as a student or a teacher. But not this year. And I’m relieved.

Instead of spending ridiculous amounts of time prepping syllabi and for class discussions (which was usually enjoyable, but too time-consuming for me), I’m hoping to use this fall to create, experiment, explore practices of feminist pedagogy outside of the academy and reflect on how and why I am currently having a serious crisis of faith in higher/institutionalized education.

I’m also hoping to continue working on a project that involves bringing together various accounts/stories of my experiences making, being in and staying in trouble. Much of these accounts already exist, in various forms, online. Now, I’m trying to figure out the best way to bring them together. Part of this project is the tracing of my intellectual history for the past 16 years (from graduate school and beyond) and how my experiences engaging with feminist and queer theories, inside and outside of academic spaces, has resulted in feeling trouble and troubled in the academy.

One key theme in my intellectual history has been a persistent desire to use the theories and ideas that I was learning to understand, connect, care for/about the world and to heal. This desire was influenced and shaped by my increased exposure in graduate school to feminist thinkers/theorists, like bell hooks, Cynthia Enloe, Dorothy Allison, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldúa, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Judith Butler and Audre Lorde, just to name a few.

But even as I was being exposed to these powerful ideas about using theory to understand/connect/care/heal in graduate school, I was being trained to engage with and express these ideas (and others, especially in philosophy courses) using alienating academic jargon and methods. The “rigor” I was learning made it harder for me to talk to and connect with my family and friends. And, the emphasis placed on being critical (that is, critical as picking apart and always finding fault with ideas and thinkers) made it increasingly difficult to find my own voice and make sense of my own experiences. As I struggled with my university’s emphasis on a narrow sense of rigor and their increasing demands for a particular type of professional development, I looked for ways to engage beside (or outside of/in spite of) my graduate training.

In 2001 I decided to create a video (with a lot of help from STA) about my family’s farm in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I wanted to document my family’s experiences being (visiting, resting, working) at the farm. And I wanted to use theories on identity, belonging, space, and narrative selfhood that I was wrestling with in my feminist theory classes to make sense of and/or trouble those experiences. I was hoping that my documentary would enable me to share some of what I was doing in my PhD program with my family and would help me to make sense of my own conflicting feelings about belonging, heritage and identity.

I loved creating this documentary. So much so that STA and I created another the following year. These two videos are the most important intellectual projects that came out of my years as a PhD student. While hardly anyone will read my dissertation or remember what it was about—even though I liked writing it, I have trouble remember it’s title, generations of family members will be able to watch the farm films and learn about the farm (sold in 2004) and hear my mom’s stories (died in 2009). The importance of these films, especially the second one which was dedicated to my mom, became even more evident as my mom was dying and after her death. People who hadn’t met her before her illness (like her hospice social worker) could/can watch the video and bear witness to her feisty spirit and passion for storytelling.

Documenting the farm has been on my mind a lot lately. This past month, I created a series of digital stories about my dad’s experiences living and working on the farm. And this fall, I’m hoping to create another series of stories in which I reflect on my disconnection with the farm (since it was sold) and my family (since my mom died).

As I experiment with how to document (on this blog and in digital story form) my relationship to the Puotinen family farm and it’s relevance to my intellectual history, I thought I’d try to post a few related documents from my past. The following two documents speak to my efforts to take the highly personal work of my film projects and make it “appropriate” for academic audiences by grounding it in academic ideas, theories and methods.

Shortly (as in just days) before my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my sister and I did a presentation at the Feminism (s) and Rhetoric (s) Conference in Houghton, Michigan on the importance of space and place. Since Houghton was where I was born and was only 70 miles north of our family farm, it seemed like a great opportunity to screen parts of my film and reflect on them with my sister. Here’s an excerpt from the call for papers for that conference:

And here’s a draft of my abstract (I haven’t been able to find my outline for the actual conference yet):

TITLE: Losing the Farm. Two Sisters Reflect on the Value of Space

Drawing upon a wide range of theorists, including bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cathy Caruth, two sisters reflect on the value of physical space and the impact of its loss on representations, constructions and understandings of identity. This session will be divided into two sections. In the first section, Sara L. Puotinen will show extended clips from her two documentaries on the Puotinen family farmstead located on eighty acres of land in Amasa in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. These two documentaries represent the filmmaker’s attempt to explore the stories of the farmstead—its land, buildings and past and present inhabitants—and how those stories have shaped her understandings of self, family and heritage.

In the second section, the filmmaker’s sister, Anne Puotinen, will briefly respond to the films. In addition to critically reflecting on how these films communicate the importance of the farm for the Puotinen family and its individual members, she will discuss how the recent loss of the farm—it was sold in November 2004—affects understandings of physical space in relation to memory and belonging.

In addition to serving as an example of how I tried to connect my own experiences and struggles with identity to my academic theories on self/identity/belonging/space, this document stands as the last project that I completed before my mom was diagnosed. It was also just a few months before I completed my dissertation and earned my PhD. Hmm….I’m thinking a lot about the split between before diagnosis/PhD and after. How big does the split figure into my intellectual history? Is it a split? I want to think about that some more…