If Not This, Then What?

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Part of front cover for my book.

On Saturday night I finally “finished” my series of accounts/book, Unofficial Student Transcript, and submitted it for e-publication at iBooks Author. It’s currently under review. As I wait for it to be available in iBooks, I thought I’d post a few accounts from it on this blog. Here’s my conclusion:

if not this, then what?
not a haunting question, but
an invitation

If not this, then what? If I can’t be an academic, what can I do with my training and my intellectual curiosity? What else is there besides teaching and researching at a college or university? For years, while working on my Ph.D and then after graduating, these questions haunted me. I felt as if the only thing that I was qualified to do was teach and research within academic spaces. In my darkest days, after sending out scores of job applications for tenure-track and visiting professor positions and getting rejected repeatedly, the panic and sense of hopelessness would creep in.

Luckily I did manage to find a good, albeit temporary, job as a part-time ad- junct and then full-time Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department. I taught at the University from fall 2006-fall 2011. I was really excited when I was offered the three year position. My own office! Benefits! A lot more money than I made as an adjunct! Great classes to teach!

Getting a full-time academic job before my mom died (I started this position in fall 2008, she died a year later in fall 2009) was very important to me. She was the one I talked to about all of my failed job searches and she could commiserate, having experienced 4 (!) decades of agonizing academic job searches as the wife of an academic administrator. I know that she was very proud of me.

While I was at the University of Minnesota, I experimented a lot with how I taught (my style, strategies, assignments) and what I taught (topics and type of content). And, I learned a great deal about feminist pedagogy, queer theory and digital media as I worked to stay one step ahead of all of my students. I learned so much that it feels as if my time at the university was as a student and a teacher. This is the kind of teacher I like to be: one who is always engaging, encounter- ing new ideas and participating in the learning process with my students.

But, my job was temporary; I was under constant threat of not having my contact renewed. And, I was repeatedly reminded, in big and small ways, that I wasn’t a real member of the faculty. I couldn’t vote, I couldn’t apply for grants and I was (just) a visitor who would eventually leave and therefore wasn’t worth investing any time in. With their super busy schedules and the constant demands placed on them by administration, other faculty members, and students, faculty members in my department didn’t have time to invest in me and my future as an academic. They barely had time to eat or sleep or deal with their own personal struggles with serious illness and aging and dying parents. Plus, they had stronger investments in and commitments to their graduate students; placing graduate students in tenure-track jobs meant higher ratings for the department and more status. These ratings were important for ensuring that the department wasn’t consolidated (“hubbed”) when budget cuts came rolling in.

Regardless of why it happened, I was made to feel like I was less than the tenure-track and tenured members of the department. That felt uncomfortable, demoralizing and wore me down physically and mentally. By the time I finally left the University in 2011, I had extreme doubts in my abilities as a scholar, a thinker and a teacher. Was I fooling myself that my new research and teaching in and with digital media was interesting and innovative?

Now that I’ve been on a break from teaching and researching in the academy for over a year now, I’m not as haunted by the questions, What can I do besides teach in the University? and If not this, then what? I’d be lying if I said that these questions didn’t still haunt me a little. My break has provided me with some much needed critical distance. And I’ve realized that my perspective on being an academic has shifted.

When I first went on the job market, I wondered whether or not any institution would want me. Was I good enough? Smart enough? Did I fit with their interests and personality types? Now, having spent so much time immersed in femi- nist and queer theories, reading, writing and teaching about limits, failure and the value of troubling and being troubled, and having spent six years working Post-Ph.D and experiencing the hierarchies and damaging myths of the AIC, I wonder whether or not I want to be at any institution. Are the drawbacks of academic life—the push to ruthlessly compete instead of collaborate with others, the demand to prioritize your academic work over the rest of your life, the constant reminder that your work will never be good or rigorous enough, the threat that only certain work counts as real academic work and only certain people count as real scholars—worth it?I’m sure that there are many pockets of resistance where scholars are collaborating with each other and, more importantly, with community members outside of the academy, on cool and important projects. Or where wonderful scholars find ways to continue to be joyful and passionate about their work within academic spaces and, by virtue of that joy and their generous spirit, transform those spaces and those who inhabit them in amazing ways. Actually, I know that these folks exist, even if they are rare. One of my favorite people from graduate school at Emory University, Dr. Kristi McKim, is just such a scholar.

When I start to wonder if I could be one of those scholars some day, when my kids are older and I’ve managed to figure out how to be a person and a scholar at the same time (ha!), I pause. Maybe. Maybe I could recapture the love and passion that I’ve had for so long for the academy again. But, maybe not. When I think about the disciplining, the push to professionalize, the elitism, the gatekeeping and the entrenched resistance to new forms of scholarship, I’m not sure the academy could ever be a place that welcomes my undisciplined and troublemaking practices and perspectives.

But questions about my future in the academy aren’t as urgent for me right now and I’m not as anxious about what kind of present or future I can have outside of the academy. Instead, I understand the question, “If not this, then what?” as a (mostly) exciting invitation to imagine new possibilities and ways of being an intellectual, a student, a storyteller, and a person who has lots of interesting conversations.

Why I Went to Graduate School

Right now I’m in the midst of skimming through the article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go (2009), and I’m wondering, Why did I go to graduate school? In the article the author, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker), describes how and why he advises his students not to go to graduate school in the humanities. He writes:

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

In an article published a year later (2010), Benton/Pannapacker intensifies his critique, writing:

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

Harsh. And (mostly) true to my experiences on the job market post-degree. Getting a Ph.D in the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies, I was shielded from some of this structural damage (or I managed to ignore it?). Maybe it was because I was being trained to identify and resist larger structures of oppression, privilege and unequal power distribution. Maybe it was because my committee members were supportive of my work and encouraged me, for the most part, to do the types of projects that I wanted to do. Maybe it was because I was one of “those privileged few” to which Benton/Pannapacker refers, that are fully funded and have a partner with a full-time job.

I did feel the pressure to professionalize—network! network! network! and publish! publish! publish!—and to pick projects that were cutting edge and grant-worthy. And I did feel that when I graduated in 2006, I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I was 31 years old and had been, almost exclusively, a student since I was 5. While some other students in my department had acquired valuable administrative skills, I had focused almost all of my attention on researching, writing and teaching (oh and having two kids). As the post-Ph.D years went by, and my job search for a tenure-track position continued to be unsuccessful and extremely demoralizing, I kept wondering, If I can’t teach at the college level, what can I do?

Like a good little student, I kept preparing and sending out ridiculously labor intensive application packets that continued to be rejected (sometimes without acknowledgment, sometimes after grueling campus visits). It felt hopeless. I felt hopeless. But I also felt like I couldn’t stop trying. I had been told too many times, once you stop applying and working for a job, you can’t try again. Your degree has a limited shelf life and nobody will want you if you’re not active in your field as a researcher or teacher.

It has been a year since I stopped teaching. A year since I sent in an application for an academic job. And, I’m relieved. For the past year, I’ve been working on a lot of different critical and creative projects that allow me to use the tools/theories that I learned in graduate school in ways that I never had time to do when I was teaching and that wouldn’t be valued within academic spaces. I’ve also experimented a bit with how to translate my skills into work outside of the academy.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve devoted tons of time to the difficult labor of unlearning some of the most toxic (at least for me) values of the academic industrial complex: that you’re a failure and less-worthy without a tenure-track job; that academic work is better (and loftier) than other professions; that the only thing you can do with a Ph.D is teach at the college/university level; and that even though the academic life is demanding and difficult, it’s worth it…for the difference you make in student’s lives, for the benefits you receive, for the flexible hours you can have.

So, as I posed at the beginning of this post, why did I go to graduate school? In one of his articles, Benton/Pannapacker speculates that many students go to graduate school because: 1. School is what they know; 2. School is where they are praised and validated; 3.  It’s better than trying to find a job; and 4. They “think” they have a passion for a subject. In my case, I’m sure #1 applies to me. Not only had I been attending school since I was 5, but I, and my mom and 2 sisters, had been following my dad around the country my whole life as he worked in higher ed administration. School was all that I knew.

But, when I applied for graduate schools, first for a masters in 1996 and then for a Ph.D in 1999, I wanted to go because I believed (maybe a little naïvely) that the deep immersion in ideas and theories that grad school encourages, would provide me with the tools to make sense of my world/s and experiences and to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with a wide range of people. What I didn’t realize when I was applying is that I also wanted to go to graduate school to develop the skills that I needed in order to challenge those systems and structures that invalidated my curiosity, my penchant for posing questions and my refusal to ever accept that “that’s just the way things are.” My graduate training (and my later on-the-job training as an educator) in women’s studies and feminist/queer theory, gave me those skills. This training also forced compelled to recognize the limits and problems with the academy and to search for (and hopefully find) ways to resist and refuse it. At this point, I can’t say that it gave me the skills for reworking it. I’m not sure that it’s possible to rework a system so seemingly broken. 


Artifact: Awesome Button

As part of my ongoing intellectual history project, I’ve set up a new Tumblr in which I post brief accounts and archive artifacts. Yesterday, I archived a button that I received as a gift, years ago:


“Fuck this Fifties Housewife Bullshit” was a gift from two students in the first women’s studies course I ever taught: Introduction to Women’s Studies at Emory University, Fall 2002. I can’t quite remember who they were or why they gave me this awesome pin. I can think of a couple of reasons: 1. They liked my class, 2. They were inspired by our discussions, earlier in the semester, about Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, or 3. They knew I was just about to become a Mom (I had revealed to all of them earlier in the semester that I was pregnant) and they wanted to encourage/support my feminist resistance to traditional gender roles.

I loved teaching that class. I was a Ph.D student in Women’s Studies. While I was in residence at Emory, from 2000-2003, I was only required to teach 2 classes as part of my fellowship and degree. Unlike at other schools, where graduate students are required to teach a lot, usually while taking their own classes, I taught these classes after my coursework and while I was studying for my doctoral exams. I was also required to be a teaching assistant for two courses, but that job was designed to serve as a mentoring opportunity, in which I worked closely with the professor and received a lot of useful feedback on my own teaching.

Emory’s program was unusual (and unusually awesome) because of the low teaching load for graduate students and the amazing amount of funding they provided for all graduate students: 4 years of full tuition + a generous stipend. Also, they put a lot of emphasis on mentoring and training students to be teachers. While I was a graduate student, I had a teaching mentor and took a class (feminist pedagogy) that was specifically designed to prepare for me teaching the Intro class. And, as I mentioned above, my role as a teaching assistant was primarily designed to give me teaching experience and mentoring; it wasn’t just used to exploit me as cheap labor.

I was lucky. I didn’t realize that until I began teaching at a research university and witnessed how much graduate students taught (as assistants who graded papers and ran discussion sections, or as instructors, who taught huge classes) and how little mentoring seemed to be formally built into their teaching.

In thinking about graduate students and how they are frequently exploited at universities, I did a little bit of online research and came across this post: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go. I also found this one: The Brutal Lives of Others: Exploitation in the Academy. I want to read them as I reflect on my experiences in and beyond graduate school.

A few responses to the AIC

I’ve been experimenting with various ways to organize and express my thoughts about my academic training and my experiences in the Academic Industrial Complex (AIC). Today, I decided to quickly (and perhaps inelegantly) compose a series of haikus. Then I tweeted them.

on learning

to learn is not just
to collect facts, earn degrees
but to engage life

on theory

theory works when it
heals pain, moves us to struggle
and creates new worlds

theory doesn’t work
when it alienates us
from that which we love

on graduate school

when I started school
my wonder was fueled with joy
but lacked direction

when I finished school
my wonder was directed
too much; it lacked joy

Beside/s: What is (your) theory for?

Currently, I’m in the process of crafting an autobiography of sorts over at my new site, UNDISCIPLINED. I haven’t written much about the new site on this blog yet because I’ve slowly been working on adding and creating content. My focus for the last few days has been on my experiences with the AIC (the academic industrial complex). As I was revisiting some lectures notes from Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism, I came across this passage from Shaunga Tagore in A Slam on Feminism in Academia:

some of us need to engage with feminist theory
so we can ground it in our community activist work
our creative works
our personal relationships
for our families, communities and histories
for our own fucking deserved peace of minds
maybe we need to know how to make sense of oppression
because we’re so heartbroken we don’t want to end up being locked away in psychiatric institutions
or in a hospital overdosed on pills, getting our stomachs pumped
because we don’t know WHY all this shit is constantly driving us CRAZY (Tagore, 40)

Powerful. I want to think more about how this passage resonates with my own experiences and my own increased resistance to the academy and academic thinking/theorizing. But for now, I want to put it beside another passage that I’ve just started writing about, bell hooks eloquent description of the healing power of theory in Theory as Liberatory Practice:

I found a place of sanctuary in “theorizing,” in making sense out of what was happening. I found a place where I could imagine possible futures, a place where life could be lived differently. This “lived” experience of critical thinking, of reflection and analysis, became a place where I I worked at explaining the hurt and making it go away. Fundamentally, I learned from this experience that theory could be a healing place (61).

When taken together, these two passages make me wonder:

what is (your) theory for?

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!

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…

Trouble and the Academy

A recent comment that I wrote on this blog has got me wondering about my own relationship to the academy/academic spaces. Just a few minutes ago, I wrote:

I’m currently struggling with my own relationship to the university. Having devoted so much of my life to formal education (as a student and teacher), I’m deeply invested in it. Yet, I feel that in the last few years, I’ve really pushed up against its limits and experienced a deep sense of alienation because of it. Is it fatally flawed? I really hope not, but sometimes I’m not so sure…especially when institutions are unwillingly to rethink elite models that serve the interests of so few at the expense of so many others.
As I think through my own (troubled) relationship to the academy and academic spaces, I thought I’d revisit some of my past reflections on the topic. Here are just few entries in which I write about my struggles of feeling alienated in the academy:

in praise of the academic riffraff

All day I struggled with how to convey my reactions to Gary A. Olson’s article for the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. Some of that time was spent wondering why I should even bother. I’m still not sure. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to offer up this unfinished thought…

Last week, Gary A. Olson wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he strongly cautions against jettisoning “traditional monograph-style dissertations” in favor of digital scholarship. Claiming to have “received calls from a handful of deans and department chairs” who fear the damage to the reputation and careers of those in the humanities that such a shift would cause, Olson suggests that digital scholarship might not be scholarship at all. It’s too quick and short. It discourages our capacity for deep concentration and sustained engagement with research. It is not “appropriately vetted by responsible experts.” And, it seems to be (at least partially) motivated by a scholar’s desire to get “instant gratification” from others on their research.

In contrast, continuing to rely on the 300+ page dissertation enables scholars to maintain “proper” standards and still be rigorous in their efforts, both of which are central to ensuring that the humanities are valued in this scary time of increased budget cuts. It also enables those in the hollowed halls of higher ed to use the peer review process to keep out the riffraff, “the amateur or dilettante simply posting thoughts online.” Because without the elaborate peer review process of “top tier written journals,” presumably first introduced to grad students through the process of writing and getting their dissertation approved by a committee of experts in their field, written work is (probably) not serious and scholarly enough.

For Olson, or at least his “callers” (the anonymous “they” that he refers to throughout the short piece), the issue is simple: Expanding scholarship to include new forms, especially digital ones, is a threat to the humanities. It diminishes its value and lowers the standards of its scholarship. And, Olson asks, “Why should humanities scholars settle for lower standards for their own disciplines?”

Judging by the title of my post and the content of my blog, you might correctly guess that I am troubled by Olson claims. And I’m not alone. Just read the comments on his original piece. Or check out Sample Reality’s response post, Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration, over on his blog. Many writers have great, very thoughtful and studied, responses to why Olson’s argument is faulty. I’m not interested in re-hashing them.

Instead, I want to offer up some praise for (what Olson might refer to as) the academic riffraff; those scholars, thinkers, writers, teachers, and activists who refuse to settle for the limited and biased set of standards and proper behavior that many in the academy continue to promote. While these “standards” are supposed to ensure quality, they are often used to keep out ideas/practices/people that challenge privileged forms of knowledge production.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t have any standards? That there’s no way to effectively assess whether or not serious engagement is occurring? No. It means that academics need to spend less time policing the borders of who counts as a scholar and more time engaged in the difficult labor of repeatedly asking who benefits (and at whose expense) when “standards” and rigor are invoked. They also need to develop new ways to understand, engage with and evaluate research.

Many of the digital scholars that are critical of Olson’s claims aren’t part of the academic riffraff; they are successful academics who have managed to do critical and creative work online and offline in ways that earn them cultural capital within the academy. Indeed, it seems as blogging and other online engagements, have increased caché in the academy, or at least some pockets of the academy. So, my praise of the academic riffraff is not necessarily for digital scholars working within many academic spaces (although I do appreciate the work that they do). Instead, my praise is for all the thinkers, troublemakers, storytellers, academic rebels, adjuncts, graduate student teachers (and more) that get exploited, undervalued, dismissed, and rejected even as they engage in exciting, compelling, innovative, “cutting-edge,” transformative, revolutionary, and accessible work.

Not as a side note, but as an finished thought and feeling, I’m bothered by how this argument for “standards” and “rigor” is so easily gendered, raced and classed. It seems that the “academic riffraff,” those folks who are doing the most interesting and innovative work, have the least amount of privilege (and access to cultural capital). 

For more on the MLA controversy, see my previous post: tweeting your thesis? good. rethinking purpose of thesis?  better.

tweeting your thesis? good. rethinking purpose of thesis? better.

Last week, some grad students at UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities wanted to use twitter’s 140-character limit for learning how to concisely articulate and share one’s thesis statement/topic. So they created and started using the hashtag #tweetyourthesisI was really excited to see this use of twitter; I developed some twitter assignments this semester for my students with the same goal–getting them to practice being concise–in mind. Two days after they first started using it (jan 11, 2012), Wired Campus at the Chronicle asked: You Can Tweet Your Thesis, But Should You?

According to this article, the hashtag has generated some online debate, sparked partly by a question posed early on in the use of #tweetyourthesis:

What does it mean if a student can condense an idea for such a long project into 140 characters?

My immediate response to this question is: what does it mean if a student CAN’T condense an idea of such a long project into 140 characters? And another question: What’s the purpose of our ideas if we can’t communicate them in succinct, compelling ways? Just like the original tweeted question (twestion? tweequery?), my two follow-ups are leading questions; they aren’t really questions intended to open up a discussion about how we should/shouldn’t use twitter in our academic work. Instead, they are posed with an understood response–What does it mean if a student can condense an idea in 140 characters? Implied response: Their thesis isn’t complex, rigorous, demanding, in-depth (fancy) enough. The counter–What does it mean if a student can’t condense? The implied response: Their thesis is too complex, too jargony, too esoteric.

Either way you ask it, critical debates/conversations get hung up on questions of how best to develop and communicate a thesis and whether or not to use twitter in that process. While these are still important questions (and while I’m happy to have any conversations that take twitter seriously as medium of thoughtful and meaningful expression), they are not the questions that I want to pose and critically and creatively explore about graduate theses and online technologies like twitter (or blogs) right now. Why discuss whether or not twitter should be used? It is being used in productive, interesting and empowering ways. They are not questions that get at deeper concerns about how graduate departments can and should rethink the purpose and requirements of the thesis in light of the job market, the ridiculously long time that it takes to earn a doctorate (on average, 9 years), and the shifting ways and locations in which academic publishing is happening.

On January 9th, InsideHigherEd’s Scott Jaschik wrote about recent conversations/debates at the annual MLA convention concerning the future of the dissertation in their post, Dissing the Dissertation? Much (but not all) of the discussion focused on if and how to respond to recent online technologies and their impact on how academics write, communicate and publish. Here are a few key passages:

1. on writing on the web as more than making PDFs of your articles
“Miller, of Rutgers, stressed that opening up students to digital work was a responsibility for humanities departments, given the way people increasingly communicate information. Graduate students need to learn “what it means to write for the web, with the web,” which is not the same thing, he said, “as making PDFs of your [print] articles.”

2. on rethinking scholarship and the “life of the mind”
“Whether departments want it to happen or not, the form of scholarship is going to change, he said. Rather than avoiding that, scholars should consider the ramifications, he said, by redesigning dissertations. “Once you lose the monograph, what’s the future of the long argument?” he asked. “What is the life of the mind is going to look like when it’s no longer stored on the page?” The answers will become clear when those about to become professors or public intellectuals are set free from the traditional dissertation, he said, and are encouraged to produce digital works.”

3. on learning new ways to read and to mentor
[Kathleen Fitzpatrick] “It should be our jobs to support new kinds of work,” she said. And for faculty members trained before the digital era, she said that means a responsibility to “learn how to read in new formats,” not just to look for linear arguments over hundreds of pages.

So true! It seems as if many writers/scholars fail to understand that writing online is much more than just putting something that you have written online; it requires developing new ways of connecting, collaborating, understanding, reflecting and communicating! Students AND faculty need to develop skills/ways of thinking and engaging and writing that the new online media demand. How can students be prepared for writing, researching and teaching in the 21st century without these important skills? They can’t.

Note: Fitzpatrick is the Director of Scholarly Communications for MLA and is doing some really amazing stuff with e-publishing and using online technologies to shape scholarly work. Check out her blog, Planned Obsolescence, and her MLA address: Networking the Field. No, really, read her awesome address! Here are a few great bits from it:

1. on the need to recognize online writing as writing and figure out how to put online forms to work for us
“I would argue that the challenge we face today in our encounter with the digital future of our fields does not come from a media culture, or a student population, that refuses writing; instead, it lies in the need to recognize that the forms of writing that engage so many todayare writing, and to figure out how to put those forms to work for us, rather than dismissing them as inherently frivolous and degraded.”

2. on how new forms can make us (teachers/students) better writers and communicators
“This is a challenge that many faculty today are meeting in their classrooms, by experimenting with individual and group blogs, with Twitter, and with other forms of social, networked communication, often to great effect. These modes of engagement with online writing often work, in to give students a sense of audience, of writing as an act of communication and critical exchange, that far exceeds that produced by the research paper; online, their words are subject not just to the scrutiny of a single evaluator, but to that of a broader group of readers engaged in thinking about the same questions. However formal or informal the location of the writing may appear to us in comparison with the properly MLA-formatted research paper, the act of communicating on an ongoing basis with a broader audience – practicing over and over the art of staking out a position, presenting evidence, engaging with counter-arguments – or frankly, even just the art of being interesting and amusing – can only help produce better writers, and clearer thinkers, in any venue.”

3. on needing to understand these forms and take them seriously
“This seems obvious enough. But the need to understand these new, networked, often less-than-formal modes of writing as writing applies equally to us and our own work. The horror that greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing – or even more, the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication – reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms: what they are, and what can be done with them.”

4. on how scholars are already using twitter for engaging and connecting
“The standard dismissal of Twitter as a scholarly tool suggests that no serious argument can be made in 140 characters, and there’s of course a real truth to that. But that dismissal betrays a failure to engage with the ways that scholars actually use Twitter today, and the things that can be done in those 140 characters: scholars share links to longer pieces of writing; engage in complex conversations in real time, with many colleagues, over multiple tweets; and more than anything, perhaps, they build a sense of community. This community is ready with congratulations and sympathy, and is eager to share jokes and memes, but it’s also ready to debate, to discuss, to disagree. More than anything, it’s ready to read – it’s not just a community of friends but a community of scholars, an audience for the longer work in which its members are engaged.”

So, to wrap this entry (which was originally intended to be a brief discussion and archiving of the discussion about #tweetyourthesis), I thought I’d offer up my own twitter-worthy–it’s 58 characters!–thesis for this post (and a succinct summary of my thoughts on the topic): Tweeting your thesis? Good. Rethinking the purpose/requirements of thesis? Better.