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Student liberation

17 Oct

One thing I have learned recently is that one should always be wary of anyone who occupies a higher position in the hierarchy. Although I knew I should exercize caution, I wrongly assumed that the professor cared about my work and the consequences that their actions would have in my life. However, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire states that “Every approach to the oppressed by the elite, as a class, is couched in terms of false generosity” (133). It has become very clear by now that I do not matter and they only act in ways that protect their personal and professional interests.

Denis Rancourt’s advice: “Never accept overt intimidation or abuse from the professor. Stand your ground in such violent attempts to repress your agency in the classroom. Explain the nature of the unacceptable behaviour and request an apology.” I wonder why I find this so hard to practice. First of all, it is hard to acknowledge that you are being treated unfairly. I doubt myself, doubt my analysis even in the face of repeated offenses, find excuses for the offender, minimize damage. If everyone else accepts the situation, then surely it’s ok, or can’t be changed anyway, so shouldn’t I adapt and stop complaining? I’ve been trained to submit to figures of authority. I know I am not supposed to tell them why they are at fault. I can laugh, I can hint, give some clues, expose problems, but not challenge. Never challenge directly. Secondly, intimidation is seldom “overt” – it masquerades as paternalistic advice, false concern for your well-being, or a subtle indication that your judgement may not be sound.

Instead of supervision, I want collaboration. I must always be in charge of my work and will not blindly follow prescribed steps without knowing where they lead me. Instead of being told what to do, I want to consult with my supervisor. Decisions will remain in my hands. I will not be treated like a dependent. My supervisor does not know what is good for me or what is best for my work. As Rancourt writes, my first responsibility is not to my supervisor but to myself and my own dignity.

Authority and failure

2 Oct

I have come to realise the crucial role of authority. The point is not to have authority over others so as to dominate them, but rather authority over yourself, your decisions, your production, your thinking. Unless you assume a position of authority over your life, others will do it for you and use your time and effort for their own purposes, at your disadvantage and at the cost of your integrity and, possibly, your dignity. This happened to me and my work recently, and is particularly difficult to handle when the attack comes from people who have institutionalized power over my work and, by extension, over me. This is why, according to Mictlantecuhtli, “You have to have a resistance identity”. Failing an important stage of my academic work was a major blow. I’ve been reflecting on the experience over the last two weeks and, after talking to trustworthy friends and academics, I have come to the following conclusions:

1) The main cause of my failure is institutional. It is due to internal tensions and power games in my department, as well as to defective supervision.

2) The efforts I made with my work in order to patch things up, fulfill partly unspoken expectations, and obey impossible demands only made matters worse. I lost the authority I had over my work and omitted to give strong, clear direction to the project at large.

It is very difficult for me to believe in these conclusions. My immediate context is telling me that I have failed because my work was defective and I therefore deserved to fail. Failure is making me feel like an outsider, thereby further damaging my research identity and creating a pressing need for the development of a “resistance identity” to counter the process. Mictlantecuhtli writes that “Standard academic advice is designed to interdict the creation of such a thing. It says you have to work harder, work “smarter” and so on; it alleges that everything is under your control and anything that goes wrong, went wrong because you did not follow instructions.” The analysis is apt because it points out the covertly abusive nature of much of the advice we get, which only serves to reinforce the ideology of the institution. Basically, the system is right, and if you fail, you aren’t worthy of the system and must make amends (or the system may be wrong but it is what it is, so deal with it – which amounts to the same thing: subservience/compliance).

Authority must become my priority. It is not an authority that I will use to dominate others but an authority I will exercize over myself in order to become more assertive, protect my needs, and develop my project. Instead of trusting other authorities with the direction of my work, I will become self-reliant. I will no longer passively nurture the thoughts that:

– I do not have a strong enough sense of authority in the project AND I do not realize this
– I do not think of myself as the person in charge, but as a worker on the line
– I do not think of myself as the person with expertise, but as the implementer

I will make a conscious effort in order to determine why my work has value. Instead of following doubtful advice and attempting to work through distrust, I will use authority in order to define, shape and, when the time comes, defend my project against external attacks.

The disciplined writer

6 Aug

This time I am going to argue in favour of discipline, but only insofar as it comes from yourself. Being well organized – ensuring, for instance, that you make regular progress on your project – makes you more independant. You define your own goals and stay in charge of where your work is leading you. Waiting for deadlines to draw near forces you to work under external pressure and procrastinating is sure to make you feel guilty for engaging in important activities that are not work-related. You may even work all day, accumulating hours that aren’t productive at all. I like to get up early, write for a relatively short time (one to three hours) and then move on to different activities. Being disciplined allows me to retain a sense of potency in other areas of my life and remain my own master. Although intellectual work is crucial to me I also believe in praxis, in creativity, in community, and I need to protect my time in order to stay engaged in the world.

As I wrote in my previous post, there are exceptions to this, times when I feel it is necessary to reflect on my writing from a certain distance. I sometimes wonder if I truly own my academic project since at least some of my achievement will be claimed by the institution in the end. By being organized and limiting the time I spend on it, I nevertheless make sure that academia doesn’t control my entire life. Working efficiently forces me to stay focused on the essential, a skill which also allows me to steal time from paid jobs for personal projects on occasion.

The undisciplined writer

3 Aug

I have been working on an academic project for some time, and it generates a lot of anxiety: am I good enough, is this what the supervisor is looking for, is my work adequate? Such questions create a context of insecurity which compells me to ask for reassurance. It forces me to be dependant on voices of authority and hinders me from building self-trust and confidence. In order to become a productive writer, I have trained myself to set up a schedule, get up early in the morning, and track the results. However, discipline means nothing in and of itself. There is no need to scare myself into looking for validation constantly because it takes energy away from my work and stifles all creativity. When I started my project I believed that pushing myself intellectually would be liberating but, now that I am further along the process and more critical towards the institution, I can see that liberation will derive from my approach to my work and whether or not I have to give up my own agency, whether or not the project becomes an exercise in self-delusion and self-indoctrination. There are times when I neglect my work for some time because I am following a different train of thought, reading books that have nothing to do with it, looking at another theoretical school, or being creative. This used to make me feel guilty and inadequate.

To be “undiscplined”, as I intend to reframe it now, is to be a complete human being who refuses the atomization of her life. Knowledge is so compartmentalized that it can easily prevent one from making links between subjects and interpreting theory in terms of one’s experience. Yet whenever I express my desire to look into other things, the response I receive is “finish your project first”. As if meaning could be postponed indefinitely; as if no future obligations were lurking behind the current project; as if new activities and ways of thinking did not have the capacity to transform the project under construction. Is it because we fear the true potential of thought that we confine it to strictly delineated contours (in terms of field, methodology, and politics)? Are we so afraid of freedom that we need the constant reassurance that authority is on our side?