There is never a solitary, simple takeaway from any conference. Yet as I journeyed home yesterday, I reflected on the experiences I had over the past 10 days at ACPA – College Student Educators International (Indianapolis) and the American Educational Research Association [AERA] (Philadelphia), drawn as always into the Western desire of reducing an experience to a simple fragment, a solitary theme, a take-away lesson. I mused over the reflections of other colleagues in the field, who have publicly shared their own thoughts on their conference season or where they are in their work: Josie Ahlquist; Paul Gordon Brown; Daniel Tillapaugh; Estee Hernandez; Chris Linder; Ed Cabellon; Christopher Conzen.
My training as a researcher works well: in searching for the takeaways, I felt as if I was somehow ‘coding’ the ‘data’ of my own conference experience(s) with that of my colleagues, thinking of what connected us and our stories. This is an instinctual habit of researchers – find the patterns, reduce the story, pick the ‘one’ word that thematically or narratively captures the phenomena and experience of all participants; ground it into a theory of the ‘real.’ Elizabeth St. Pierre or Lisa Mazzei no doubt would recognize this experience, and would find it absurd (personal communication, April 5, 2014).
This is not what I seek to do – so this is not my list of takeaways from this year’s conferences (though I certainly have that list). I will, however, share a thought stream that has been converging, ebbing and flowing into my consciousness a lot over the past 10 days. This thought deals specifically with finding scholarly community.
I felt compelled to pick up my copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2007) Teachings on Love. As often happens, the universe perfectly delivered to me, 35,000 feet above the surface of the Earth, and through this text, a glimpse into a certain tension I felt within myself over the 10 days: the tension of a certain unique form of scholarly solitary confinement.
Hanh (2007) talks of the importance of “interbeing,” of challenging the thinking that “we’re a separate self” (p. 55). To many (including myself), the joy of conference season is rooted more in this solidarity, this “interbeing” with others who share similar values, work, or challenges. It is refreshing to be immersed in the company of fellow scholars or practitioners.
Scholarly work is quite different from being a practitioner. I remember being told during the many socialization processes of graduate school and dissertation writing about the solitary nature of academic work. Over the past 10 days the solitary nature of scholarly work was not so much on display, and this was encouraging. I saw research teams come together to present their work. I observed colleagues connecting with passion, excitement, and vigor over meals, coffee, and symposia to share their research. I watched as people connected over new thoughts and ideas, invigorated by the potential of solving problems facing education, helping people learn, or advancing an agenda of justice. Certainly I had many of these experiences myself.
Yet it would be disingenuous to say I did not feel certain solitude as well. I think this solitude emanates from many places for me personally, but in terms of a research agenda as well. Advancing to where I am now in my thinking, I seek to ask some challenging questions. I seek to bring into the fold(s) of our academic and practitioner discourse some different ways of thinking about what we mean when we talk about student identity issues, how we enfold into these discussions the digital space(s) where many of us increasingly live part of our lives, and what that ultimately means for educators and researchers. As someone who loves deep theory, I also seek to bring into conversation with our current theories and practices new theoretical constructs: complexity theory and new materialisms being some theoretical perspectives most heavily on my mind presently.
But this can be a lonely place – and I found that a lot in the past 10 days. I’m not seeking to design some intervention that solves the problems of the digital student or develop some grand theoretical framework that can be used to explain everything about digital social identity in college students. I’m interested in this work, certainly, but this is not my focus right now. Rather, I’m honed in on asking some larger philosophical and methodological questions that I think need to be explored if we are to advance the field, particularly in regard to research on identity and social media in the 21st century student experience. So I’m comfortable with the solitary nature of this work.
But I still want to have “interbeing” with my fellow scholars. The academy is a hard place to find “interbeing,” especially since what is privileged is independent work. I’d venture to say that a large majority of academics fall into this “trap of complexes” (Hanh, 2007, p. 55) Thich Nhat Hanh talks about – the trap of comparing ourselves to others. This is built into the social fabric of our society and the academy. There are potentially damaging ramifications for this.
This “trap of complexes” is partially responsible for our operating in a world of dichotomous hierarchies: presenter/discussant; professor/student; white woman/white man. For me, this makes “interbeing” that much more difficult in the academy. We all belong in these spaces. We all have knowledge of value in these spaces. We need to help each other through these tensions more honestly.
As I personally push forward in my work, I hope I can commit more rigorously to moving outside this solitary work and spend more time “interbeing” with my colleagues. This post is my request for more “interbeing” with the larger scholarly community, sent out into the universe.
Hanh, T.N. (2007). Teachings on love. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.