asceticism, engagement

as i start to think about my next two to three years, which will be filled with ethnographic research and dissertating, i’ve been thinking recently about what it is we think graduate school is supposed to be. or rather, what kind of people we’re supposed to be while we’re engaging in dissertating. or how deep intellectual engagement works. or some combination of all these things.

i’m coming at this from several points here. first is the entirely practical issue of housing. my housemate of nearly 2 years has a job (there is light at the end of the tunnel!) and she’ll be moving out this summer. do i find a new roommate to share the rent (with all the potential pitfalls and joys of roommates)? or do i move to a smaller place where i will be by myself?

second is the issue of where my research will be, and how close to it – and to the department – i’d like to be. do i want to begin commuting? will i have a choice about that? will i have funding and thus need to be on campus to teach, or will i lack funding and thus not need to be around but also thus be much poorer?

but these practical considerations are closely tied up to bigger issues for me. i crave community. i find myself – now, and in previous lives – being the one who organizes events where people interact. i love having dinner parties, and enjoy conference organizing. especially here, in graduate school which can be so alienating and anomic, in a state i had no previous contacts, this was difficult for me, and i put a lot of emotional energy and time over the last 3 years into trying to create the kind of community i wanted. i had a rude awakening when a (kind, supportive and well-meaning) faculty member introduced me last fall to a new first year student as “the cruise director of the department”. ouch.

in the midst of a small existential crisis last year*, i talked to two of my mentors in the city where i did my undergrad degree. one, a professor who shaped much of my thinking about sociology, teaching, feminism, and mentoring, told me she thought i was doing things exactly right by being single. she said i could go into a monk-like existence, i inferred because that would enhance my ability to focus intellectually and produce good work, and help me be single-minded about finishing the damn dissertation.

the next day, i had lunch with another mentor, a woman i worked for between undergrad and grad school, who herself had left her (non-sociology) grad program ABD. she is one of the more brilliant people i know, an amazing writer and teacher. she was concerned about how much grad students give up to be good grad students, and worried about the healthiness of a “monk-like existence”. what would i miss out on? how would other aspects of my life be stunted by such a life?

so the choice at hand is not just about living alone (which i do love and miss) versus living with other people. the choice is about living in a more engaged way: being in a central location where people drop by, hosting events at my house, being a visible presence in the department, having regular weekly events; or living in a more ascetic way – withdrawing from much of that social engagement so i can focus more fully on work and research. the latter choice would undoubtedly allow me to do more work, but also might result in being cut off from the interaction i crave, leading to depression and isolation (what! in graduate school?!) that are also not good for the work.

i wonder, too, how this plays out differently in fields like anthropology where students spend a research year abroad. they are much more fully alienated from the comforts of familiar places and events and people. but they don’t have a choice about that. in some ways i think it’s more difficult when you do have to negotiate both worlds at once. this is an issue that ethnographers of their own communities should discuss more. how does one integrate or separate one’s research from one’s other life events when the research site is only just down the road? how does one deal with the cognitive shift required by, say, leaving an interview and stopping by the grocery store on the way home? i haven’t seen anyone write anything on this exact topic, anyway, but please point me to things i’ve missed.

*yes, in part prompted by that cruise director comment. but in part just the run of the mill grad school thing. i’m exaggerating a bit for effect.

Explore posts in the same categories: existential crisis

4 Comments on “asceticism, engagement”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I’m organizing a conference for my department/school now, and frankly a retreat to the ascetic lifestyle sounds pretty inviting.

    But seriously, I hope that ‘cruise director’ comment was a well-intended, if at the very least a highly awkward way of expressing a compliment. I find, having walked away from a poli sci program ABD and coming back to do soc. of ed, that graduate school is filled with socially awkward people – and so for a department to get someone who’s got some social skill and talent in building community is for them a real boon (a fact which they then do their best to obscure by making such wisecracks.)

    My own struggle is to learn how to work with one’s inclinations and sensibilities…if you crave community, you’re not likely to find the isolated, ascetic lifestyle particularly rewarding, as if you’re going to be seamlessly productive during those quiet hours by yourself. Achieving discipline – obvious, perhaps but for me still easier said than done – is more a matter of acquiring a kind of instinct for when to work and when to put it aside.

  2. auderey Says:

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure she meant it as a compliment. But it still really freaked me out and made me realize that I needed to make sure that wasn’t the sole way people saw me in the department. It was more a moment of self-reflection that I had gotten a bit out of balance, I think. Because ultimately I really do like a more ascetic lifestyle than I’ve had lately. I think partly that depends for me on whether it’s self-imposed or externally-imposed (I do better with the former). And I’d be the first to stand up for an “awkward academic” contest.

    Soc of ed – me too! what’s the conference?

    Thanks for coming by –

  3. Andrew Says:

    It’s an international ed conference: Thankfully, it’s done next week (as for the anonymity thing, I don’t blog with my full name, but neither do I do much to hide my identity.)

  4. auderey Says:

    oh, yeah, i thought about coming in to the city for that, and i have a colleague who is. i hope it goes well.

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