On Doing Academics in a Non-Traditional Way

Recently I had the honor to close out the European Association Network conference that was held at the Hague University of Applied Sciences. I had opened the conference with a song and a charge for people to hopefully be inspired by throughout the conference. At the closing I not only had them singing but dancing as well. Although there were some terrified faces, there were mostly joyous faces and moving bodies with lots of laughter.

After the closing one of the participants came to me. She said: We are with a group from Belgium and we were talking. You work in a non-traditional way. You started us off in a non-traditional fashion. Weren’t you afraid? We figured you had to be, but you didn’t look like you were afraid at all. We have been (academically) raised to always be afraid of failure. We would be terrified to do such a thing, so we wondered and thought it would be best to ask you. It was an interesting question.

I thought about it for a second and as the words came, it was as if they were coming from outside of myself. They probably were. I told her, it might sound strange, but this is what I am meant to do. It is like you feel these forces and voices that guide you. I have lived long enough now to have experienced that when I don’t listen to those voices I always end up in the wrong place, so I might as well listen. Sure I feel some butterflies in my stomach right before I am supposed to start, but the minute I start things just start to flow and that is gone.

And as I listened to myself, I knew that the words I spoke weren’t just for her. I needed to hear them as well. I needed the reminder. I have followed the traditional academic path and I did well. I learned all the required information and it informed me. It informed me but it didn’t nurture me. I didn’t feed my spirit. That was done on the periphery by certain people in my life. It was done by the scholars that I found that did include me in their materials, their contemplations, and considerations. But I had to look for and find that material myself because my teachers didn’t offer it to me. I am not complaining, because I found my way. I did respect my teachers, even if they didn’t really know how to accommodate my interest in scholarship from the margins. As my godmother would remind me: “Just do what they want you to do, and after you graduate you will create your own.” In addition my ancestors were always guiding and steering me and becoming more and more a solid foundation in how I stand and move in this world, whether academic or other.

So now I am in the position to create my own, while at the same time working in an institution that functions on traditions. If it was up to me, the worldly part of me would have run away screaming a long time ago. I will be honest, I often think about quitting. But that’s the worldly part of me. That’s the part that sees the obstacles, and wonders if it’s all worth it and if change is truly possible. Then there is the other part, the part that walks by faith and feels that this is what I am meant to do right now, regardless of all the hurdles and stumbling blocks. I can feel the doubts and questions that surround me daily. I don’t look way ahead. I don’t know if this machine is too large and ferocious and will spit me out eventually. It might. In the mean time I only focus on the step that’s right in front of me and try and to do my best.

It is often very lonely, I will not lie. It gets tiresome always being the only one who sees things totally differently from the rest. It is exhausting to have to justify, explain, or otherwise claim the space of the non-dominant other. The ease with which that viewpoint is dismissed, ignored, silenced requires that you cannot even address it directly. Instead you have to be strategic and address it in a particular way in order not to cause shut down or resistance, but cause break through. It drains your energy. But then there is that voice that tells me, that’s why you’re here. So for right now I am here. And again I am reminded of my godmother who would listen to me whine on the phone about the hardships of trying to complete my Ph.D. She would listen quietly and patiently and then would tell me: “Good, get it out of your system, and then go back to work. We need you.”

So to those fellow warriors who are daily trying to make these institutions a little better in providing young people with educational opportunities to bring out the best in them, be assured. We live in an (academic) world where we like best practices, success stories, and achievements. The truth is there are mishaps, failures, disappointments, and vulnerabilities as well. It is not a weakness to acknowledge those aspects of this work. So, in spite of the weariness, frustration and hopelessness that might knock at your door at times, stand knowing that what you are doing is worthwhile. For whatever reason you choose to do this work, own it as your own. Own every aspect of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then take a deep breath and do whatever you need to do to release that what doesn’t serve you. As my godmother put it eloquently, “Get that s… out of your system, and then go back to work. We need you.”

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