02 October 2008

power struggles

Pretty regularly, I have an existential crisis over whether I should go into a research career, whether I should enter academia. "Am I cut out for this?" I've always thought that to do well in academia, you have to have a certain amount of narcissism. Maybe not to megalomanic proportions, but let's face it...you have to think that you have something unique to contribute to a field. As a teacher, you have to think that you have transformative potential. There is always a certain amount of power in these positions, especially given the power of the academic institution.

Who the hell am I to think that I have something unique to say or do? What the heck do I know about ANYTHING? I really feel that I am fundamentally more a student than a teacher. A lot of it has to do with a lack of confidence and self-efficacy. I'm just a young woman in her mid-twenties who grew up in a middle class predominantly-White suburb, and for the most part, I've lived a somewhat insulated, privileged life. Sure, I've had some struggles coming from an immigrant family; my parents have sacrificed a lot. But for the most part, I've been able to do everything that I wanted to. I think about how I wouldn't be here today if I didn't have these privileges, if I didn't know the right people. From one perspective, there's a major attack of the Impostor Monster going on. 

From another perspective, there might be something dissonant between the highly competitive, individualistic culture of academia and my own socialization. Growing up, I was taught, "You really don't know anything." Call it fucked up family dynamics (In hindsight, I also see it as an intergenerational conflict between parent-child as my parents found themselves usurped of their power, knowing less than their U.S.-born children). But perhaps there is a cultural component, the value of being humble and blending into the crowd, respecting authority. These are all values that Filipinos (and I believe other cultures) prize. 

How could I have the audacity to think that I'm somehow special? That my ideas are better than anyone else's? In graduate school, I'm told that the best way to learn things is to basically lock myself in a room with my books, a computer, and JUST DO IT (which by the way is completely against my learning style, which requires more active, even kinesthetic modalities). The message is that I should do all that I need to do to "get ahead" which connotes competition over collaboration, not to mention sacrificing any semblance of a balanced family and personal life.  

I am not a power-tripping kind of person, and I really hate dealing with power-tripping people. Arrogant know-it-alls make me want to pull my hair out. Yet, I'm non-confrontational and when asked to defend myself or my ideas on the spot, I become flustered and shut down. Or I acknowledge the valid points of the other side and end up looking like I have no resolve.

So much of this is second nature to me. I would rather work together with others, each mutually respecting the perspective that we bring to the situation. Operating in this system that is so different from who I am as a student and as a person brings me full circle to the question: "Am I cut out for this?" Maybe the question should not be if I am cut out for a system that reinforces traditionally White, individualistic norms. Because I will almost always come up with the answer of "No." Maybe I need to reframe the situation and ask how my work and professional career can make changes in the system and the culture. After all, I am in grad school not just for status or to make my parents proud, but I want to somehow take my family and life experiences and channel them into something good for my community. So maybe that means making the system and the culture work for me and my community.

What I think needs to happen is:

A) Develop strategies for overcoming both the individual level challenges (increase self-efficacy through mentoring, increasing opportunities for leadership and professional development, etc) and the structural barriers posed by the institution of academia.

B) Find other allies within graduate school/academia who feel similarly oppressed and devalued. Dialog. Collaborate. Change the culture. 

- or- 

C) Give up and marry rich.


Elaine said...

I think your approach is much healthier than the typical academic approach, the "I have this theory or take on history that is right, and I will go to talks and conferences and defend it and challenge other people" approach.

I went to several history talks back at Northwestern where academics would take such delight in debunking each other, and it made me disillusioned with what they did.

To me, the attitude should be, we're all learning together. What I like a lot about my reporting and writing class: my prof encourages a "collaborative not competitive" newsroom.

And I hear you about that attitude, what do I have to contribute to the academy (or to whatever establishment) when I have thought about potential career paths.

I think though, if you don't do it, some fool will, and the academy and the world need more people like you than they do arrogant, self-possessed types. Or if you don't want to contribute to the academy but in some other way, that is great too. Who needs a straitjacket to prevent you from doing the great things you want to do?

Katie said...

Have I shown you the C.S. Lewis quote "Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another 'What! You too? I thought no one but myself.'"?

Just in case it wasn't already clear why we're friends, you go and post something that could have been pulled right out of my head! We should chat... :)