Hurdles/Distractions along the way....

I just realized that I haven't posted anything on this blog for days now....that bothers me because it's not like I haven't had thoughts that I would have enjoyed thinking through further and sharing with anyone who wanders by. But because over the last week my life seems to have been consumed with logistics over which I do not have complete control: airline reservations since I'm planning to leave for field research shortly (weird issue with mileage points and multiple stops!); the university which I attend requiring me to prove my existence and/or the legitimacy of my claim to a particular kind of existence time and again to complete processing of financial aid documents, unfreeze my school e-mail account, issue transcripts and the like; fellowship applications - decidedly the biggest bane of my existence right now...just when I thought I could sit back and just enjoy writing my dissertation there comes the matter of next year's living expenses since I will still clearly be ABD (All But Dissertation) and would like the freedom of being able to focus on my dissertation rather than worrying about 60 first-year students simultaneously.

So today's entry is kind of like a list that relates to this issue of 'freedom to focus'....a list of what I think gets in the way of other Ph.D students like myself as we dissertate....the hurdles/distractions along the way....

1. Fellowship applications: Coming from a temporal mindset (others might call it "culture" but I find that label imprecise not to mention suffocating) where one does almost everything even beyond the last minute it's been somewhat challenging to bring myself in tune with American temporalities. So just by crossing the Atlantic I went from being super-organized to struggling to keep up with my to-do list. Still that's not the biggest problem. Just seems like even though I got a fellowship to do research this year I am unable to devote myself to my dissertation and have to keep descending into a world where I have to worry about the following year. Not that I mind (but not necessarily enjoy) the process of applying for grants; it's just that it seems like I'm stuck in a grant application spiral and fear that it will end up consuming more of my time than I care to devote every fall..at least until I finish :-). And then post-doc searches begin!

2. Listening: Sometimes it's just plain disheartening, even frustrating, to engage in conversations with academics or aspiring scholars who simply don't bother to listen but have an uncontrollable urge to critique one's argument. Unfortunately it rarely amounts to more than "I wouldn't do this research this way". Precisely....you aren't doing it, I am!!! I find myself wondering in the wake of such interactions whether I'm just not being clear or whether we don't engage in conversations but rather in weird debates where fist-banging can pass off as a sound argument. Since some people happen to get what I say I worry more about the latter. But I don't know how long I can go on defining the word 'nations' as I conceptualize it....in certain contexts I find that most of us often remain trapped in our own agendas which prevents us from having interesting discussions. Easy fix: stop having conversations....however it's a completely unappealing option for someone like me because I cling to the belief that intellectual growth and curiosity come from sharing instead of isolation.

3. Professors with hang-ups: Apparently the M.A program I was enrolled in was pretty much as good as it gets in terms of the "ideal scholarly environment"....the Ph.D environ to which I belong has come with some unanticipated bumps in this regard. But I consider myself extremely fortunate to have ended up with a committee that is extremely supportive - particularly my chair who seems to be on call 24/7/365 and 366 every leap year :-) and actually cares very deeply about letting me learn and explore. Equally lucky that I've ended up, through attending workshops and conferences and e-mails, forming what others often refer to as an "epistemic community" but I sometimes cringe at because it seems a bit impersonal for the kind of bonds that have emerged from these interactions....either way the "epistemic community" or what I like to refer to as my "I and I" (where the 'and I' refers to others besides myself in the strict physiological sense) keeps me inspired and reflecting...both as someone who is dissertating and as "simply" a human being.
However, these conversations are sometimes marred by professors who fall on the following spectrum: ideologues to brilliant but with issues. At this stage the ideologues rarely disrupt my normal state of 'being'....it's nice how having defended your prospectus and having a committee in place protects you from that. But the latter half of the spectrum is one that still throws things helter-skelter every now and then...in my experience, these are folks whom one would have liked to work more closely with but sometimes things just don't click primarily because their parenting personality doesn't click with one's own...it isn't easy to share custody rights of one's baby (i.e. the dissertation). ....so one has to figure out how to play the "I'm the biological parent" card appropriately. Still all well but the problem emerges when such interactions seem never-ending and resurface out of the blue...a bit draining especially when you've had an exceptionally hard time negotiating the earlier decision to draw certain boundaries around the relationship at a given point.

4. Playing: And in between emerge the friends and family who feel neglected, sometimes irritated, when you seem to appear to them to be sitting at home (which usually translates for them into doing nothing) but won't come out and play every time they want to. Of course the people who matter tend to understand but the others, in their persistence and whining, do become something of a nuisance. Combine that with my own desire, some say obsession, to not displease others and it makes for some trying circumstances....often exacerbated by the fact that this experience can't be put into words all the time....kind of like those funny moments for which "you had to be there" to appreciate it.

5. Not just a Ph.D: Finally there are those relatives and friends who assume I've become some kind of feminist or am not interested in "traditional values" primarily because I'm from Pakistan, 28-going-on-to-29, and unmarried. To them I'd like to say for the umpteenth time - it'll happen when it's meant to happen and has NOTHING to do with the fact that I decided to get a Ph.D and that the two aren't mutually exclusive.
Related to this, just because I'm getting a Ph.D doesn't mean I don't have other facets to me....so if there was ever a statue going to be dedicated to me we wouldn't have just the great thinker on the lawn but it would have to be a whole line of statues doing various things and passionate about each and every one of them...or perhaps one with many balls up in the air each of which might be transparent and that show me doing something else that I love. I kind of like that last option where none of the various hats I wear define me in neatly designated categories but come together in a logic that is best described as contingent to "define" me at a particular moment at a particular time.

As my parents remind me at times - I need to not let these things get to me. And I agree that an attitude adjustment might be the best way to deal with this kind of stuff. I'll add that it doesn't debilitate my green-pointing (this is my name for the funky thoughts that fall into my head as I read, write, talk with others) but yes sometimes it is depressing and consuming. I need to remember that getting a Ph.D is an emotionally charged process that often overflows into other aspects of my "being"....and that despite all these hurdles/distractions I continue to believe that it's totally worth it. What other vocation comes with the freedom and excitement of 'green-pointing' as one's job description :-)?



Following my previous post (Ph.D’ing as a vocation), I found myself immersed in a number of interesting conversations. Of course there’s tons to talk/write about but for now I’m going with a similar theme as last time…well sort of anyway.

I want to talk about the notion of “in-between”. Let me say right up front that my reaction, admittedly quite visceral, to this idea is that those who think they inhabit this space just haven’t pushed their own thoughts far enough. Even if this sounds dismissive, I'll admit that I find folks who describe their respective positions and/or vocations as “in-between” simply too lazy or uncommitted.

What do I mean? Let me refer to a conversation I was involved in earlier last week to explain why “in-between” doesn’t make any logical sense, at least to me….

After my last post on the difference between being a scholar and doing politics, a colleague pressed me to share my views on the example of feminist IR scholarship as a way to combine and collapse ‘feminist politics’ and ‘international relations scholarship’ into one neat package. I’m glad she did or else I would probably not have realized that I needed to further clarify the point I was making.

As an individual, I think one can be both a feminist and a scholar and anything else….we wear many hats during the course of our lives… I’m guessing it’s somehow relevant after that too – or so I’ve managed to convince myself but I’d like to think there is some ‘there’ there :-).

But back to the point I’m trying to make….

I find that the idea of wearing a ‘feminist’ hat at the same time as a ‘scholar’ one leaves me feeling suffocated. Why? Because I think of scholarship as a journey separate from politics – one that inspires an exploration of possibilities (always negotiated within the boundaries of what has been imagined thus far which is why these are never infinite) without predetermined results or fixed notions about the destination that must be reached. [Please note that I’m not making a case for classical objectivity here but, rather, drawing a distinction between prosthetics and politics that will hopefully become clearer in a minute.]

Feminism & Politics: Adopting a feminist agenda as the basis from which to “do” scholarship would mean that one doing so has already decided what the world looks like at any given point in time and should probably transform into at another. Any “research” I produce as this kind of “scholar” would necessarily offer a prescription for the change I want to see in the world – if I were a good feminist this would have to be the case.

Feminist IR seems to me to be the perfect example of an “in-between” position where, IMHO, feminist politics are what such “scholars” work their way back to in their research…an exercise often referred to as a marriage between “theory” and “praxis”! In this case, the norms held by such scholars determine the fruit of their intellectual labors. To me this is an uninteresting exercise to engage in as a scholar. What’s the point if you are so committed to a position already that you miss other stuff relevant to it along the way?

‘Being a woman’ as Prosthetic: On the other hand, incorporating or using one’s voice as a ‘woman’ (which I see as emerging and stabilized within ongoing negotiations about identity rather than a realization of what it means to “be” one; in this sense it’s a discursive practice rather than objectively defined category of existence) while engaging in ‘scholarship’ makes perfect sense if one thinks about political in the Foucauldian sense or “objective” in the sense that Weber uses this word in his 1949 essay.

I see my position as ‘woman’ articulated and emerging in what I do as a prosthetic rather than politics. I.e. it doesn’t determine my vision of what the world should look like and it certainly doesn’t put me in some ill-conceived “in-between” space where theory and praxis meet but it does influence the questions I raise and how I explore them in particular ways at particular times. From this perspective, ‘being a woman’ is a wound among many others that spur a scholar such as myself to engage in research…not a wound in the sense of implying an oppressed and tortured mode of existence but in the sense of perhaps being pissed off at certain stuff which I understand and, simultaneously, reconstruct as part of ‘being a woman’ as I interact with others and then use this ‘being pissed off’ as the starting point (of course I’d probably be able to legitimize it as such in retrospect) of a particular journey. This journey that I speak of is the kind where one is free to think things through without feeling encumbered by other stuff which is precisely the kind of intellectual freedom I think being a scholar affords and perhaps even a luxury that I would like to see preserved.

Point being that scholarship and politics are very different activities; an individual can certainly do both but I have reservations about combining the two activities as if it was merely a convenience of killing two birds with one stone.

Speaking from a position is a different activity than speaking for one. It’s the former that I think scholarship ought to be concerned about primarily because I think being a scholar means being committed to making an effort to confront what Nietzsche refers to as “uncomfortable facts” that then paves the way towards better thinking (which becomes evident in our articulations whether written or spoken). Being ‘in-between’ scholarship and politics gets in the way of that because it requires an obsession with the latter that leaves no room to sit back and reflect (which is, IMHO, a good thing since politics is intimately connected with empirical transformation…something one can’t quite do if one is always questioning the change one wants to see in the world). My hunch is that if you’re busy changing the world you’re likely to miss out interesting stuff about it – I think most folks would agree that these are precisely the kind of insights (i.e. the interesting stuff we wouldn't notice otherwise) we demand from our scholars. Therefore, given that both activities are inspired by different commitments and bring with them different expectations I’d say that being a scholar at any given time means that one cannot make a good political activist simultaneously and vice versa….so why bother if you’re not going to do either one of them well? I’m all for ‘eclectic’ food options at a restaurant but using that logic to do scholarship and politics in the same breath worries me.

So if you ask me (you might not but this is my blog so I’ll proceed as if you did :-)!!!) I’ll opt for doing things well and taking my commitments more seriously rather than inhabiting any kind of “in-between” space. If you’re still wondering why…well the only example that comes to my mind right now is my dissertation….I’d rather explore how difference is imagined in the India-Pakistan context than continue to make a largely unreflective stink about the fact that difference is why the India-Pakistan conflict thrives. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think imagining the ‘other’ as ‘neighbor’ or ‘friend’ is still a statement of difference….a point I’d surely miss if my sole concern as a “scholar/political activist” was to provide a recipe for peace that made use of activities such as people-to-people contact and high-level diplomatic talks. I relish being a scholar as it leaves me free to indulge my present focus on how what we refer to as the ‘India-Pakistan conflict’ becomes meaning-full in bounding practices…that’s where the interesting stories lie anyway :-)!!!!


Ph.D'ing as a vocation....

Anyone who is working on their Ph.D or has already gone through this process will most likely have attempted to answer this question several times along this journey to say the least: Why am I getting a Ph.D?

A colleague of mine once said he was "in it for the stipend!" Of course $11,000/year takes one very far in DC (!), contrary to popular beliefs...or realistic cost-of-living estimates ;-). Add the thrills of ill-conceived comprehensive exams, having to take classes with professors who have yet to learn of the word 'pedagogy' let alone what it means, and colleagues who might be too busy complaining to do much else and it all adds up to the experience of a lifetime.

But I digress....and perhaps too cynically?

What's my answer to this question? How did I want to go from wanting to be a creative director in an ad agency at age 14 to wanting to become an academic at age 20?

My parents often point out that my answer to this question can be found in a photograph they used to have of me (we lost all our photographs in a fire in our home not too long ago) as a 7 year old teaching a classroom composed of my grandfather, great grandmother, and my grandmother's brother....something I did almost every week-day afternoon from ages 5-11 (gasp!). We even had a huge black-board with a pink frame in my bedroom - the ambience had to be perfect! Maybe there is something there....but that's another story, another post maybe :-).

What do I care about that makes me want to do this? What pisses me off? Or perhaps bewilders me, bothers me, irks me?

Two kinds of conversations that I have been engaged in over recent years have helped me articulate my answer to this question:

Conversation Type # 1: These exchanges occur typically when I'm asked for an elaboration of my dissertation project. A common response to my explanation often goes along the following lines: "Oh wow! Your topic is so timely! Peace between these two nations is so important. You're going to be so famous. What a worthy cause!"

Conversation Type # 2: These exchanges normally happen between myself and other Ph.D students. My resistance towards participating in protests, signing online petitions, and attending meetings of any organization with an "activist" stance coupled with my insistence that I am not writing a policy dissertation that suggests some kind of recipe for peace between India and Pakistan has earned me the reputation of being "apolitical" among peers and in encounters at conferences.

My response....

I guess I didn't get the memo where getting a Ph.D was the equivalent of signing up to change the world!

I'm getting a Ph.D because I want to become a scholar/professor. What do I mean when I say that?

I have no false pretensions that anything I write is motivated by changing things in the region I'm studying for the better somehow; that's a bit too presumptuous for my taste. I'm a scholar, specifically a social theorist; not a journalist and not a politician. My job is to think better and to tell better stories about social reality.

Of course I am not denying that any arguments I present can then be deployed in a particular spatio-temporal context of interactions between the countries I'm studying. It is likely that peaceful, or less conflictual, relations might emerge as a consequence of these exchanges. But that has nothing to do with my being a scholar and a professor (in-process at the moment and many more moments to come!!) and everything to do with how my argument is used once it becomes a part of the rhetorical topography in which relations between these two nations emerge. (Of course things could go the opposite way but that is also another post - on Theory/Praxis --- forthcoming!)

My "wounds" - or to go back to what I wrote earlier - what pisses me off or bewilders me is much more simple. I enjoy the process of thinking better and find I like to do so by writing better...it could be a screenplay, journal article, a research paper, novel, poem, or even a short story. What bothers me are accounts of social reality (whether biographies, poetry, or a social science-y book) that fail to push a thought to the point where it becomes dismally flattened.

In the case of my dissertation, I find that existing accounts of the conflict that I am analyzing flatten the imagination of difference (assuming of course that identity claims are the most important ones in this context). Briefly, the stories of 'self-other' that I grew up listening or reading in partition literature juxtaposed against accounts in history books or in the news highlight how inadequate the latter are. The India-Pakistan conflict of history textbooks or news programs is a simple matter of hating the other; stories and memories, on the other hand, reveal that this relationship is much more complex and that it cannot be understood by being reduced to mere hatred for the "other" but, rather, we need to pay attention to how this boundary or how difference between 'India' and 'Pakistan' emerges and is legitimized in complex negotiations where the "other" is simultaneously friend, enemy, neighbor, etc.

Similarly, in my MA thesis I attempted to present a better account of the processes in which three different generations of women in Pakistan have negotiated their identities as 'women' during their adolesecent years in response to televisual texts broadcast on TV during prime-time. Had a feminist cause been at the heart of my thesis I would have written something about the oppressive messages broadcast on Pakistani television; but, as a scholar, my job was simply to better understand how Pakistani women negotiated being women at a particular time and place. (Of course my criteria for "better" will vary from that of another person's/scholar's --- more on better, adequate accounts some other time).

To get back to the question I referenced earlier....

I didn't come to get a Ph.D and write about the India-Pakistan conflict because I thought I could bring both Vajpayee and Musharraf to some odd table to talk things through and settle the Kashmir issue or because I want to spearhead people-to-people contact efforts. If that was what I had wanted to do I would have become a civil servant, journalist, or even an activist like Arundhati Roy. There is of course nothing wrong with being any one of those things....the point is that I don't think achieving these goals requires getting a Ph.D and becoming a scholar/professor.

Heidegger wrote somewhere that being a teacher required understanding how to "let learn". Coming pre-packaged with political commitments gets in the way of that - one is too busy converting to listen and to let learn....a political activist can't help but teach what s/he already knows. However a scholar who knows her/his "wounds" and realizes their value as prosthetics rather than as politics is a different animal altogether.

My parents have always taught me to do whatever I did well. Similarly, I would argue that if I am to do my job as a scholar/professor well I need to do precisely what Heidegger recommended - let myself and others learn. And that's why I'm getting a Ph.D!