Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Life and work of an indy scholar part 5 - The week was steady as she went. Not that nothing exciting happened, I’m just unsure if it’s exciting for you to read about my daily routines, exciting as they are to me. Not every week is a new adventure, this is not Hollywood and most weeks are about ongoing projects. As a specialist in narrative, I know a diary without new happenings will probably bore you soon, so instead I’ll turn to some reflections about my twelve years of independent scholarship. This decision came up last week and was reinforced by a suggestion dr. Inger Mewburn made. She hosts a very well read Australian website (find it here) filled with useful advice for PhD candidates. I wrote her about my weekly blog because although independent scholarship is rather unknown, a view from the inside can enthuse at least some of the many PhD candidates who are about to leave university. Inger accepted my offer and invited me to write about five lessons learned. I don’t know if I learned exactly five lessons, but I started writing anyway and will share my progressive insights in the course of the following weeks.

The one biggest lesson I learned is: help your client. Obvious as that may sound, ‘help’ inside academia is of a different kind than ‘help’ outside. In the PhD process we learn to find our voice (for non-academic readers, ‘voice’ is a combination of expertise in a specific field and the authoritative certainty with which we display that expertise). This is not an easy process, as most PhDs find it difficult to make assertions, raised as we are with the first principle of science: doubt. But there’s help: other academics. Now, there’s something peculiar about that ‘academic voice’ which makes it strange-sounding in most non-academic ears. Academics use their voice to yell at each other. Most of the time, but not always, this yelling isn’t in person, but on paper. And most of the time, but again not always, it isn’t as explicitly abusive as your ordinary diatribes. Rather, it’s a sophisticated game of sticks and stones aimed to set your opponent straight by proving her wrong and by implication yourself right. It’s called ‘the academic discussion’, outside academia better known as ‘negative feedback’ or ‘criticism’. Its rationale isn’t just that it’s great to be right, but that you actually help your opponent to make a better case by showing the weak spots in her theory building. Believe it or not, you’re supposed to find this buttress-kicking game helpful. We grow so accustomed to this genre of communicating, that our everyday vocabulary looks like an arsenal stocked with the terms ‘dispute’, ‘contest’, ‘competing theories’, ‘rivals’, ‘winning argument’, ‘refute’, ‘take position’, ‘defend a claim’, ‘attack an opponent’, ‘find weak spots’, ‘armed with arguments’, ‘defeat’, ‘evasive behavior’ and their likes, that we become unaware of the predominance of war metaphors in our language. Academic help is generally of the aggressive kind. As part of our disciplinary training, we learn to receive it and, at a certain stage of academic maturity, we learn to give it to others.

Our thesis is our proof that we’ve mastered our voice. But once we do so, two things happen. First, our new voice has grown on us and feels like a natural stage of coming of age in academia. We use it with ease and we like to use it. Second, we don’t want to let go of it, since we mastered it with such hardship. As a consequence, we tend to use it on every occasion, even when it’s inappropriate (for instance at parties, where we think our persistence is mistaken for stubbornness).

To be honest, the academic dispute grew quite naturally on me. I’ve always had some bluntness over me and I have the school reports to prove it. In turn, I’m not easily offended. But what university made me forget were the other genres available for human communication. I simple turned deaf to the likelihood that my academic voice is unhelpful outside university life. That’s when this voice-thing became a burden. It took me several clients to realize that a signature at the bottom of a contract was not an ‘en garde’ invitation to a fencing duel. Not all clients are happy when you frolic around them with your sword, lashing out to them and leaving them baffled with a ‘Z’ (or an ‘F’) cut in their chest. Not all clients find it helpful when you tear their work apart and put your finger on the inconsistencies they were unaware of or wanted to leave under the carpet (my training was in deconstruction, go figure). Call them silly, but not all clients want to pay for just hearing you call them silly, however charmingly put. And that’s exactly what I did, I eloquently proved them wrong. Moreover, I brought the theories to back me. After some time I realized that outside university an academic voice can be perceived as yelling. I might feel triumphant winning the feud, but it didn’t win my clients over.

My parents called me Floor, short for Florence. Being a boy named Sue must be harder, but in an English-speaking context it’s an odd name (most people insist on calling me Flewah). As it now turns out, it’s a handy name to summarize this first lesson: help your clients, but don’t leave them floored. How? I’ll come back to this next week.

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Disclaimer: #NotAllAcademics :-)

Part 4: How university delayed my indy scholarship          Part 6: Recognize the carnivalesque as normal life          All weekly blogs