Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.
Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.
The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.
As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.
The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.
I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.
Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.
Right now, I do know just about nothing on the conceptual histories and key texts of that field.
Hence the scholarly identity crisis.
The crisis is about who I am, academically, and it’s also about the pressures of being seen as a scholar in a new field. How do I establish myself in a new area, feeling very much like an early career researcher, when expectations are more in line with those of a mid-career academic? What is my sharp intellectual narrative, which is so important for grants, job applications, and promotion documents?
And, overriding all of this, is the stare-at-the-ceiling-in-the-middle-of-the-night idea that I won’t be producing enough, or my work won’t be good enough, to establish myself with any credibility in the new field. It’s a very vulnerable state.
I feel like this but I also know that the way we’re often forced to think about our research activity and output goes against how the work actually travels.
Jonathan Gray’s post on Recomposing Scholarship at the LSE Impact Blog covered (with much more erudition) some of the things that I wanted to say.
Scholarship is about the way in which constellations of people and objects produce meaning, understanding and insight, through interaction, acts of interpretation. The value of a journal article is not the stated impact factor of the journal, any more than the value of a scholar is the aggregate of his or her publishing record. The value of a piece of scholarly text is in the interaction it has with its readers, in the sparks it generates, the friction and light that it produces – whether tomorrow, or in a hundred years’ time.
In contemporary academe, it can be very easy to get disheartened by the measures of ‘success’ that we are meant to abide by. I’m not immune to the angst or attacks of self-doubt.
I often tell researchers that, in all the jockeying for position, the element that will get them through, and make their academic research lives worth sustaining is passion for their topic, finding opportunities to advance it, and working with good colleagues. I’ve written before about how researchers are more than their disciplinary codes.
I really must start taking my own advice.
I think of the field I’ve helped create and am still heavily involved with, and it’s extremely satisfying. Not only because I can sit back and say, “Well, there was something that wasn’t there before!” about Asian Australian Studies, but also because various members of the research network (AASRN) have galloped off with their own intellectual and creative passions within the field. They’ve gone on to create other groups and organisations that boost Asian Australian academic and cultural work further, such as the Asian Australian Film Forum Network (AAFFN; focused on screen cultures), Peril (critical arts and culture magazine), and the AASRN meetups (mostly in Melbourne, starting in Sydney) that are increasingly taking on an activist edge.
The directions they’ve taken the research network mean that my changing scholarly identity, as it coalesces, will have no problem finding a home there.
In addition, a huge part of being able to discern the likely trails I’d take through these new research areas comes from an excellent mentor and welcoming, highly productive colleagues from my #circleofniceness network (almost all of them became my buddies through Twitter).
So, does changing disciplinary horses mid-stream leave you professionally stranded, and with chafing to boot, or can it be a catalyst for joining a new stable and building a broader research identity?
I’m obviously hoping for the latter. Only time, and getting stuck into publishing new research, will tell.
Affirmations or warnings from those who’ve been there are very welcome!