Unofficial Student Transcript

I just posted the bulk of my introduction to my intellectual history over at Undisciplined. I thought I’d post it here too:

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Welcome to my intellectual history project. In these pages, you will find a series of essays/accounts/fragments about my life as a student. While a few of them concern my earliest years in kindergarten and first grade, the bulk of them are from college, graduate school and my post-Ph.D teaching and researching (1992-2011). Collectively, they represent my efforts: 1. to make sense of my current status as existing somewhere beside/s the academy and 2. to experiment with ways to bring myself into my academic work on subjectivity, agency, narrative selfhood and storytelling.

I. Origins of this Project

My efforts to reflect on and write about my experiences as a student in the academy have been happening for over three years on my blog, Trouble. But, I didn’t envision making them the focus of a singular writing project until this past fall (my first fall since I was 5 that I hadn’t been in school as a student or teacher), when I started creating tentative outlines of my autobiography and brainstorming information architecture for my new website, Undisciplined. Then, in December of 2012, when I was sorting through my old files and organizing papers that extend all the way back to college (1992-1996), I realized that I wanted to write a series of accounts in which I used my own archive as the source material for critical reflections and interrogations of life as a student in the academy.

As I began digging through my files in the basement for documents that seemed significant, I was relieved to see that even though I had moved around quite a bit as a student—from Minnesota to California to Minnesota to Georgia to Minnesota again—I had managed to hang onto some key documents: the final evaluation for my senior thesis, a copy of my master’s proposal, papers (with my teacher’s comments) from my first year in college, name tags from conferences, old student ids. I also explored my digital files, searching through hidden folders (that I only managed to find after trying out different keyword searches), dating back to my masters, and discovered past papers, presentations, my senior thesis, my master’s thesis and my dissertation.

Looking back at these materials, both the physical and the virtual, conjured up a mix of emotions that made me feel joyful, sad, nostalgic, angry, and conflicted all at once. I had done so much work over the years. Amassed so many articles, all carefully organized with printed-out labels, on feminist theory, identity politics, poststructuralism, feminist and queer pedagogies, feminist theology, ethics, radical democracy, queer theory, critical race studies and more. But even as I marveled at my dedication as a student and scholar, I was troubled by how this work was all in the past—I had stopped teaching and doing “academic” research in December of 2011— and haunted by the questions: What was this work for and why had I stopped?

In order to spend time working through these questions, not so much to answer or resolve them, but to learn to live with the discomfort and uncertainty that they generate, I started writing. The first account I wrote was “Pithy Chewiness.” Then, inspired by the process, I wrote, “Promise.” I began looking through past accounts I had already created on my blog or in digital stories and combining those with new reflections. I read through old papers and wrote about how my perspectives as an undergraduate or an early graduate student had shifted, been complicated, challenged or reinforced.

I’ve tried to be honest with and truthful about my experiences, even as I’ve realized that this project has increasingly becoming a way for me to justify and value the work that I’ve been doing and that (I feel) has been undervalued or ignored by others.  I’m not sure that I’ve always succeeded in being honest, but I have found the process of writing (and collecting) these various accounts of my student life to be useful and provocative and very necessary.

II. Explaining the Title

Over the past 15 or so years, I’ve requested my student transcripts many times for graduate school applications and my academic job portfolio. An official transcript, complete with an authorized seal from the institution on the back of the envelope, is expensive. And not always required for the first round of the application process. So, at some point, I acquired an unofficial copy. When a school needed my transcript, I’d send out a pdf of my unofficial copy instead of spending $5-10 (each) on a fancy, official version. 

At the top of my unofficial Claremont School of Theology transcript is a stamp that states:

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When I was thinking about what to call my intellectual history writing project, I played around with various titles, but none of them seemed quite right. Then, one day, while I was looking through a folder filled with old job application materials, I spotted this transcript and the “unofficial” statement stamped at the top. Yes, this was it, I thought. A great title for my project! Unofficial Student Transcript.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I like this as my title. My intellectual history project is a record of my student work within the academy, from the earliest days of being a student in school all the way through to my explorations of and experiments with how to continue learning and engaging as a student while being the teacher. I’m including documents from school days, like report cards, lists of courses taken and taught, evaluations from professors, syllabi from past courses, copies of my doctoral exams, research and teaching statements and academic cover letters. In many ways, this project functions as proof, much like a transcript, of my time in school and my sustained engagement with key ideas and concepts in my chosen fields of study. Documenting my time as a student, which represents the majority of my life thus far (33 out of 38 years!), is important to me. I want to remember it and take it seriously and the process of reflecting on and documenting it allows me to do so.

But, the student transcript that I offer in the following accounts from my early years through Post-Ph.D work are not official. My perspectives and approaches to understanding the work that I did and the value of my education are not authorized by the academy or the institutions that I attended. In fact, my accounts frequently come into conflict with the “official” story about why and how one gets an education, earns a Ph.D and trains to be an academic intellectual. As will become apparent through my accounts, I have some real problems with the academy, or what I’m calling the academic industrial complex, and how it trained me to think, engage, teach and communicate my ideas to and with others.

My transcript is also not official because I’m not a real scholar, at least according to the hierarchy of Academics. I don’t even reside within academic spaces. I stepped out a year ago and am writing this in my uncertain position beside/s the academy. While the dismal job market was a factor for my current staate, I’m really in a self-imposed exile, where I’m trying to make sense of and take stock of where I stand (or want to stand) in relation to those academic structures and systems that shaped me into the troublemaking and troublestaying scholar that I’ve become.

In addition to lacking status (and a position) in the academy, my methods for thinking and writing are not officially sanctioned in the AIC. Much of my work for this project originated, in some form, on my writing and researching blog. While this work involves “serious” and deep engagement with “important” ideas, it was/is not usually recognized as such by academics because it’s not peer-reviewed or published in a top-tier journal or through a big-name publishing company. It also isn’t recognized because my aim was not to produce the newest, most cutting-edge theory that would ensure my status as a big-time fancy academic (BFTA), but to communicate and connect with a wide range of folks in my life that reside inside, outside and beside the academy.

As I compose this introduction, I’m starting to see that my assessment of the academic industrial complex might not be totally fair. I’m sounding angry and a little bitter. And maybe I am. I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my life to the academy. I was (and continue to be) passionate about learning, engaging with and deeply reflecting on interesting, provocative and world-shifting ideas. And I’m very disappointed with what the academy has done to that passion and how it’s trained me to be a scholar who feels compelled to spout jargon and reference countless theories every time I have a conversation.

My lack of fairness is another reason my student transcript is not official. It doesn’t offer objective, always factual truths. It’s biased, subjective and filtered through my current perspective as someone who is struggling to negotiate opposing forces and feelings. On one hand, I have an appreciation for the theories and ideas and training that my student years provided me. And I have many fond memories of being a student. But, on the other hand, I’m angry and frustrated about the current state of the academy and the ways in which it exploits students and teachers. And I’m sad about my loss of passion for being an educator.

Finally, my student transcript is not official because the accounts I’m providing in it are intended to unsettle, call into question and trouble any inclinations I have (and, believe me, I do) for offering up neat and tidy stories about my life as a student. I don’t want to offer up easy resolutions or moments of redemption; I want to play with and maintain the tensions and conflicted feelings and understandings in my accounts. My troubling intentions, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t, make me an unreliable and untrustworthy narrator whose accounts should never be official. And, I must add, I wouldn’t want them to be. I like being unofficial and inhabiting the spaces that that unofficial status makes room for.

III. Why Give an Account?

I can think of at least three reasons why I feel compelled to give a series of accounts of my thinking/writing/feeling/engaging work as a student. First, I want to leave a visible trace of who I am and have been for others and myself. Second, I find tremendous value in processing ideas, emotions, experiences and believe that a public account requires more care and persistent attention to that process/ing than does a private one. And third, I’m using these public accounts to experiment with how to imagine and experience a new relation to the (academic) norms that have shaped me. I’m hoping to critically and creatively develop a space beside/s the academy, where I function not as an Academic but as a person who troubles and is troubled by academics-as-usual.

The need to leave a trace has become increasingly important since my mom died in 2009. It’s no accident that I started writing in a public blog just as my mom was in the final stage of dying from pancreatic cancer. Part of this desire to leave my own trace is a response to my desperate need for more traces of my mom and what she thought and felt about the world as she was dying and after she died. As I hungrily searched for more of her own reflections on life, teaching, and raising a troublemaking kid like me, I thought about how my kids (or their kids) might want some of my reflections after I’ve died.

But my need for leaving a trace isn’t just about providing others with my reflections and engagements; I leave a trace as a sort of chain, connecting my past selves and their stories with my present and future selves. This need for a chain of connections is important for me because I feel particularly disconnected from my selves, their stories and the worlds in which those stories were created.

In the past nine years, I’ve had to come to terms with the loss of three grounding forces that enabled me to link together the chains of my selves throughout the years of many moves and transitions: the loss of the farm that had been in the Puotinen family for almost 100 years, the loss of my mom and the loss of my passion for participating in the academy.

The farm was sold in 2004, my mom died from pancreatic cancer in 2009, and my passion for teaching and researching in the academy was gone by 2011. All three were devastating losses. The farm had been my most important homespace; it linked me to past generations and served as a location for retreat and connection. My mom had been a kindred spirit and the person with whom I shared countless hours, hiking and talking and being curious about the world. She was also my biggest source of stories, since my memory seems to fail me a lot, about who I was when I was young. And my passion for being an academic had been one of the primary ways in which I oriented myself; I understood it to be more than a career, but a vocation and life’s work.

In losing the farm, my mom and my vocation something happened to my chain of past and present selves; it seemed to fully break and with it, my links of belonging…to a family, to a community, to a future, even to the past selves that I once was.

I think one of the reasons I write online (in my blog and on Undisciplined), is to create a space where I am building up an archive of ideas and experiences that I can access, remember and engage with now or tomorrow or ten or more years from now. This archive not only serves as proof of my past/present/future existence, but it enables me to craft and perform a self that endures through time, space and that is connected to past selves, generations of family members and various communities.

In addition to my desire to leave a trace, I’m giving my unofficial accounts because I want to take seriously my experiences as a student for over almost 33 years. In many ways, I’m ready to move on and explore other ways of engaging and being in the world. But, I don’t want to ignore or simply forget what I’ve learned or how I’ve been shaped by my time in the academy. As someone who feels compelled to write, I find the process of sifting through materials, reflecting on their various meanings and then devoting time to shaping them into a narrative, to be extremely helpful in enabling me to work through my thoughts and feelings. I want to make this process of “working through” public so that I can share one person’s (mine) approach to negotiating the limits and possibilities of functioning within (and beside) the academy.

I also want to make my accounts, and the processing that contributes to them, public so that I claim responsibility and be accountable for my perspectives on being a student in the academy. I’m hopeful that others will respond to, build upon, challenge, correct, trouble, and be curious about my accounts. At this point, I’m not sure what form this interaction will take. How can I encourage others to contribute to my stories and how can I incorporate those contributions into my work?

Finally, I’m writing and publicly giving these accounts as an experiment in crafting a new way of relating to the academy. I want to use my curiosity about my experiences as a student—by asking and reflecting on why the academy works in the ways that it does and at whose expense—to get some critical distance from the academic rules that have shaped me and how I function as a thinker, speaker, teacher, and engaged participant in the world. I want to use my critical interrogations and challenges of academic practices to undergo the difficult labor of unlearning some of the most toxic values of the academy (that Academics are Experts that are better and smarter than others, that rigorous ideas can’t be explained simply, that Academic “standards” require gatekeeping, that an Academic career matters more than anything else, and that Academic engagement is about competition and individual success). And, I want to use my crafting of accounts that value my role as academic troublemaker to imagine new ways of being an intellectual that neither fully participate in or fully reject the academy, but engage in practices beside (and besides) it.

IV. Methods

This writing project draws upon my academic training and the insights I’ve developed from years of reading, teaching and writing about theories on narrative selfhood, storytelling, agency, subjectivity, memory, feminist ethics, troublemaking (and more), but it’s not intended as an academic work in which I directly discuss these theories and use them to explain my experiences or where I summarize the theories and use my experiences to illustrate them. In fact, I’m trying hard to avoid thinking or writing in the ways that I was taught as an academic. Am I succeeding? 

Additionally, my accounts are not intended to be a finished product, or the final word, on my feelings about or stories of my time in the academy. Over my life, as my perspective shifts, my stories about the theories I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had in the academy will surely change. And, even as I’m collecting these accounts and shaping them into a product of sorts—an unofficial Transcript—I’m less invested in my work-as-product, and more excited about it as a process of reflection, engagement and the taking seriously of my experiences as student.

I imagine my work as a series of musings and deep wonderings about those experiences instead of a formal series of essays on what or how I learned. I do have to admit though, I like thinking about this as a Project, one that I can brag about to others when they ask, “so what are you doing now that you’re done teaching?” I guess I still have some work to do on unlearning academic values. I also like imagining it as a book that, after completion, can be placed on a shelf and forgotten for awhile. Having spent so many years thinking about these issues, I’m ready to take a break, but I can’t seem to do it until I’ve created something substantial with them.

My focus on process is a departure from my earlier writing style, which I discuss in “Pithy Chewiness.”  In the past, when I used to write, I underwent an elaborate set of practices of thinking through and mapping out my ideas. I’d gather together and classify pertinent passages from the authors that I was writing about and construct outlines. By the time I was ready to write, I had my thesis and my introduction and conclusion (almost) all figured out. I usually didn’t edit because I had spent so much time thinking through the writing already.

That writing method was successful, and got me through graduate school, with only a few tears. But, it also prevented me from engaging with the ideas that I was writing about; I rarely spent time thinking about what these ideas did to me—how they made me feel, why I might be resistant or receptive to them, what investments I had in them—and what they meant in terms of my own lived experiences.

Now, I like making my writing part of the process from the beginning. When I find a pertinent passage, I don’t just classify it and organize it with other fitting passages, I write about it on my blog. In writing about it, I take it seriously and start to see, in ways that I usually didn’t quite predict, why it’s important to me—maybe why it bothers me or moves me or challenges me. Through this process, I’m spending more time thinking about who I am as a person in relation to the ideas and I’m also allowing the thinking and writing process to shape my ideas instead of forcing my preconceived and highly logical vision onto those ideas.

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