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!


Blogger Jenny said...

At the moment, the only answer to this question that I can come up with is "because I have flat out lost my mind."

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice! Why do people ask this question?! Unless, of course, you are doing it instead of something they think you should be doing... I love your point on being able to tell better stories about social reality. This blog is a great thing. Keep it going! Best, :-) (Asad ur Rehman)

9:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home