Scared of my own voice

I publish under a pseudonym, that of the ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’. This suits me as it’s like donning a mask and going to a party. You get to attend, participate, enjoy yourself, express a different side of yourself, be a little bit risky but not compromise your real self, because after all, you were wearing a mask. You’re putting on or trying out another personality perhaps, one that is less accountable because all the threads can’t be drawn together as in real life. Real life is contextual, we add all the pieces of information that we know about a person together to form a picture, a view, and get a sense of a person. But that doesn’t happen when you wear a mask, unless you are exposed and we get to see who you ‘really are’. But wearing a mask too allows us to show who we really are as we participate in the truth telling of the bus stop syndrome. So it’s this paradox of both being able to shield oneself yet at the same time be more fully exposed in the display of oneself that I wish to explore in this essay blog.

Anonymity, like donning a mask, is protective because it allows you to express yourself through a voice that is uncensored, unafraid and keen to tell the truth. You get to explore truths in a way that is unfettered. You don’t worry about what people might make of what you say, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve suffered. You get to spare yourself the judgement. Even if you the reader judge, it is an anonymous judgement of an anonymously expressed piece of writing.

There is a history attached to anonymous writing but the common theme is that of wanting expression and not being able to, or not seeking to publish under one’s own name. People have had very real reasons for doing so, often political, related to gender or to the expression of truth that is hard to bear.

This form of communication also has its downside. By distancing myself from my own, my real voice, I’m also distancing myself from the experiences, feelings and situations that I relate here on the page. I don’t own them, they don’t come from me. That is both liberating, yet suffocating. I’m free to perform, to narrate and to share. But at the same time I’m more stifled, less, understood, less comprehended because I am not known and therefore not attached to those experiences.

And worse than that by writing in this way it is a tacit acknowledgement, indeed an agreement between myself and the reader – you – who are also party to this process through your acceptance of this writing regime, in your approval through your participation in the act of reading. Of what? Of conspiring with me in my attempt at stifling my real voice.

So this begs the question: what am I afraid of? Why have I been complicit in silencing myself all these years? In the old days I kept a private diary where I worked things out on the page. Even if I didn’t work it out, I certainly got it out. But blogging is different. Blogging includes an audience wider than one. Blogging means that there is an audience who will participate, who will imagine through my writing, who will visualise and ponder what I say, and how I’ve said it and most importantly ponder that which I’ve left out of my writing on the page.

So what am I afraid of? Am I frightened of the truth? By stating it in my own voice, with my own name attached to it, I give it an authenticity, a reality that my truth deserves. Through authoring this privately/publicly through an anonymous pen, I don’t really have to own this truth. It’s like little kids when they tell, that’s when they get upset, that’s when it hits them, that’s when they feel the emotion and that’s when they cry. Because that’s when it’s dawned on them and their truth has become REAL.

That is the issue: writing anonymously is like writing naked. You have a shawl wrapped tightly around you, and that shawl is made up of fabric, texture, materials, shades and colours that are reflective of you, that constitute your personality, your self, your personhood, known, accepted and acknowledged by others. You have it wrapped very tightly around your naked self, it holds you together, it holds you in, it keeps you bound and consistent in your interactions with the world. But for this bright, or sombre, thick or thin, expensive or cheap, mass produced or handmade garment that binds you, you would be NAKED, exposed and vulnerable.

And when we write anonymously we drop the shawl, drop the self that binds us and write freely in an unencumbered way. Our self is not limited to the materials and textures of our ordinary lives: you don’t need to know that I am the engineer, that I work in a factory or that I write science text books for a living. At this moment when the shawl has dropped I am just another human being with a story to tell. Tasteful or distasteful – that remains to be seen – but it is an experience with which you seek to participate because of the promise of the representation of an authentic, free and unencumbered voice.

But in our naked, exposed and vulnerable writing through donning a mask, a pseudonym, or just dropping the veneer of our selves, paradoxically there is greater freedom. It’s a risk to write, and it’s a greater risk to divulge truths about oneself. Once they’re said, well, they’re out there, whatever they may be.

There is such a cult of personality and even as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’ I too will be prone to this as I continue to write, continue to share my truths. Will you continue to read me if I become known? Will I want to write if my ‘real’ self wraps herself up in the shawl that details her name, her ego, her persona, at least the one that she shares with the wider world? So many industries require the success of a name, you have to be a flagrant self-promoter to get by, to move forward in so many creative industries. It is essential in academia. No mousing around not promoting yourself or attracting dollars and prestige to yourself and your department. I can’t do this, that’s why I’m not there. Wrong side of 40 anyway.

Personalities have a voice, have a history, are very present and imagine the future with themselves squarely in it. If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma these can be the very things that are compromised, stolen, even attacked in your life. This is especially true of the last part, that of imagining a secure and successful future with yourself squarely in the picture. But if you don’t like the one that’s written, an anonymous voice helps you give voice to this so that you don’t have to keep hiding from yourself. Your story, your history, your life is validated through telling. Hence the importance of processes such as bearing witness. Bearing witness allows the truth to be told, to be honoured, and to take it’s place in people’s personal histories lived against the larger histories in which all our biographies take place.

I mentioned the bus stop syndrome. It’s not a real syndrome, but it serves the same purpose as donning a mask or anonymising yourself. You get to share something of yourself in a context in which you are not really known, have no common history with people and are not likely to have them in your life again. So you’re less encumbered, more spontaneous and able to relate more freely. You’ve dropped your shawl and are expressing your reality in a way that is unaffected by the person you normally present to the world.

I met a woman on the bus the other night as I travelled into the city for a night out with a group of women from work. The woman sat next to me and we commented at the number of Greek women getting on the bus at each stop who seemed to know each other, greeted each other and sat together. As I marvelled at this synchronicity, the woman next to me explained that they had arranged to meet on this bus and that they were travelling to church together for the pre-Easter services. We talked about the women’s’ black garb and the woman sitting next to me commented that it must be freeing to wear black. I explained that it was a marker for the community, that it represented an announcement that this woman had been married, was now a widow and had left society and all the roles that had been formerly ascribed to her in her married life. The woman next to me liked this idea and thought that at the very least it would simplify one’s wardrobe. She confided that she’d lost her husband two years ago and that since then she only ever hung out with women in all the activities she undertook these days. I told her that I too had lost someone two years ago, my mother who had suffered recently from cancer but for fifty years had had schizophrenia. I felt like I’d really lost my mum years ago, or even that I’d never really had a mother in the sense that everyone else understood a mother. Therein lies part of the truth of my own and of course her suffering.

Will I find my voice? I’m on the way, but how will I ever own it?
Reprinted from The Word Clown

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Taking up Space

Nine years ago when I started my doctoral studies not only was I in a fertile intellectual endeavour undertaking fieldwork, reading theory, stretching my brain and writing, I was also at my peak fertility having babies while I did all the above. I was stretched in more ways than one.   

At that time we lived in a small house, as you do when you first start out and one of the things that I had to make space for was, well me. That was me as a student, me doing my PhD, me needing a computer and a small space to work in. Where could I find that in a house that was basically four rooms, with a partner, a baby and a toddler? We had a study set up, basic, but serviceable. As is the case it was always at the back of the house, near the kitchen and laundry, cold and draughty and not anything like the sort of space you might imagine doing your best work, your thinking and writing in.

I was in this space early in the morning before babies interrupted your thoughts with cries of need for milk, bananas and entertainment for an hour or so in the morning. I was in this space late at night as well, when everyone else had gone to bed after a nice night watching a movie or playing a game or reading a book, and was snug, while I sat in the cold, dark, poorly ventilated space next to the laundry trying to put some semblance of academic thinking against my fieldwork experiences. That I was translating and transcribing and trying to keep up with the bourgeoning literature at the same time as managing leaky breasts and playgroups says something about the spaces in which I travelled at that time.

Well the study space in the end just didn’t do it for me. I dragged the family to IKEA looking for something small in a desk that I could prop up somewhere away from people. I found a desk and a chair and we dragged power boards and strung cords all through the house and then ta dah, I finally had a space up the hallway somewhere near the front door, away from the TV and the kids, where I could work.

At least that was the theory. In practice, there was no door to separate me from the noise, the hubbub, the neediness, the wants, the cuddles, the play, the cleanup so, the baby change table and well, life basically.   

So I had to rethink the desk, chair and computer scenario again.

This time I moved them into my bedroom which was right up the front of the house. At least this way I had a door to close, which meant entry and exit rituals that I could control.

I was sick and tired of the functionality of the IKEA desk and chair and so I persuaded the family (7 minutes to get the kids into the car seats each time we stopped) to take a drive to the part of the city that had ‘interesting’ furniture and I found what in the end turned out to be a hall table with a couple of drawers that suited me just fine. It was narrow enough not to take up too much space (unlike me) and attractive as well as functional. Well, my knees knocked on it a bit when I crossed my legs, but hey I wasn’t complaining.

I set it up in front of the curtains facing the street. It was a busy street too, a secondary road that connected far flung suburbs. And it was a major intersection to boot. And one of the feeder roads to the intersection took the big trucks that transported goods around the country from the inland port just down the road. That meant a few hundred thousand big rigs shining their lights right into my bedroom as they waited to go around that corner. And go around that corner they did every time, usually in about six gear changes. I know, I used to count every single one of them.

These rigs, their lights, their gear changes, their acceleration and their brakes were my companions as I translated, transcribed and created sensible sentences to please my doctoral dissertation readers. I did OK. I passed in the end.

But the space: sitting their looking at the curtains, looking at the lights all those years ago. I thought I’d passed that stage but no. Here I am again. This time I’m facing teenagers and a partner who’s studying too. We live not in the little four room house anymore, but a couple of suburbs away in comparative luxury and splendour. We have a house with more than the minimum number of rooms, it’s open plan and has a purpose built study. What a joke. Did I just write those words: ‘purpose built study’? I should post the photo from the company that sold the build to us. It looks perfect but the photo, like my part of the study is not inhabited by any real people at all.

Here I am nine years later again facing the curtains in the bedroom. Again I’m sitting at a make shift desk, but this time it’s a reused telephone table, and I have a little bit more room for my knees, but not much. Instead of the laptop I’ve gone cordless with the IPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. And it’s carpeted..

When I look out now I don’t have to hide behind muslin curtains to shield myself from anonymous drivers. Now I look out at a panoply of suburbia. There are five houses, these are my neighbours and I get to watch the comings and goings of my street, of my neighbourhood. I see the dads come home with the kids. I see the mums dragging home groceries and pulling them out of the boot. I see the older kids smartly walk home, their school uniforms dishevelled. And the punks with their hotted up cars that they like to double park on the suburban streets, just to show how cool they are and how they can break the rules. That nobody but me and my neighbours sees, doesn’t seem to faze them. We all look to challenge the boundary spaces in life in lots of little ways, and this is their way.

I get to see the unfamiliar too: the surveyor who pulls out his equipment and takes his measures. Who’s moving I wonder? What’s the council up to, I muse? I see the bald man with the walking stick cross the road outside my house, walk along the path on the other side of my low hedge with his walking stick. He avoids my gaze and heads to the path near my house and walks to the park and onwards to somewhere that I don’t see. Perhaps to the park? Perhaps to the suburb next door? Perhaps, like some of my neighbours to the nearby club for a drink with friends for the afternoon? I don’t know.   

And I’m studying again. This time a Masters level course. So much more practical than a PhD. And fun too. I’m loving being engaged with mature students who’ve already overcome the hurdles and challenges of early career negotiations. But I need to find a space to write and that’s what this blog was about: how do you find space for yourself in a busy house, a busy place, a hectic world, a noisy monstrosity of a family that still demands something of you?

Well, you just set yourself up somewhere in a corner, or by a window and preferably, have the capacity to shut the door….

Photo credit: https://www.polesandblinds.com/blog/5-ways-to-create-a-home-office/

PS: This is so not my own window, desk, chair and curtains…. 

If I was going to be interviewed about blogging by The Geek Anthropologist: 15 questions

 

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(… this is very informal…)

Why do I blog?

When you work outside academia and you’re not actively researching you still want to write, you still want to talk to anthropologists and share something of yourself, your experiences and your insights.  I like blogging because I can write about everyday practices, ‘fun’ blogging and also comment seriously on what’s happening in my workplace.  Of late I like writing about how I fit into an interdisciplinary space.

 

How does my blogging contribute to the production and dissemination of anthropological knowledge?

Well, in writing about everyday issues I bring an anthropological perspective to new audiences, especially when I write about buying second hand clothes, or women in the workplace, or participating in Enjo parties.  I like to think broadly and around everyday practices and I also like to see what they look like from an anthropological perspective.  In saying that though, I still hope to appeal to an anthropological audience, an audience who understand and appreciate the take that I have on viewing and participating in the world.  So that’s how I see how my blogging adds to the body of anthropological work.  It’s a bit like seed funding, so let’s see what it looks like and then decide whether we can grow it.

 

Does my blogging about anthropology affect anthropological practice?

Well, that’s hard to say and hard to know about.  Anthropological practice has some core praxes but these occur in such diverse contexts it’s sometimes really hard to have an anthropological sensibility about it all.  We’re so spread out among sub-disciplinary knowledge and praxis, among geographical, specialty – even virtual areas – and even spread between the arts and sciences, so who really knows?  If blogging is about sharing an anthropologically inspired viewpoint on an issue, on a practice, on something that involves people who are working on some project together, then yes, I do think that what I write about affects our practice.  I can show people both outside of and within the academy something about how I think and work, and hey, if you’re getting more than 10,000 hits for a blog, you must be making people think about something that they’re doing…

 

Who reads my anthropology blog?

Well, I really hope that anthropologists read it.  And those interested in anthropology.  But WordPress lets you tag your posts so you can use this to reach broader audiences, which is really important if you’re wanting to show that you’re ‘thinking outside the box’, and this is important for some audiences, not necessarily anthropologists, but other audiences who are looking to break with standard practices, standard ways of thinking about how people work together, how they provide services and how they move materials, services, people and objects around the globe.  But the analytics that come with the host site don’t necessarily tell you exactly where people come from, only what city and country.  You really have to guess at the rest.

 

Who is my target audience?

Well, if I had my preference I would want to write for an anthropological audience firstly, and because I have an interest in interdisciplinarity I also try to write for a broader, educated audience.  I can’t be too specific about my exact area of expertise and enterprise because I’d probably get the sack from work if they figured out that I was writing about work, work practices and work issues without official permission.  But that said, my target audience is both anthros and non-anthros.  It really depends on the post, on the topic and the issues though.  These change and this affects the audience.  One of the most pleasant experiences that I had recently was when other anthro blog sites picked up my posts, shared links and commented on them.  That’s blogging peer review as far as I’m concerned!

 

How do I separate out the personal from the professional?

Well, my first response to this question would be: do you have to?  If we write from a situated standpoint, a situated space and perspective, then the line between personal and professional becomes blurred doesn’t it?  Look at what’s happened since Writing Culture; we’re in every page we write, aren’t we?  And in the blogosphere, we aren’t restricted so much by the rules around writing that exist in publishing, in academic texts, in conference presentations and colloquia, are we?  This is a freer form that is still becoming, that isn’t set in concrete yet and never can be simply by definition.  So I don’t need to separate myself out from my work, from my perspective, from my comments and insights.  However, I don’t blog about my homelife, my family or my friends (if I can help it).

 

How do I know when I’ve been successful in blogging? 

This is hard to know about too.  If you pay attention to the bloggers, the big bloggers then you’re always going to feel like a failure.  They have hits in the millions.  Me?  I’m lucky to get into five figures occasionally.  I know that there are emerging rock star anthropologists and I believe that they serve a role in getting the anthropological message out there.  We need all sorts of writers, all sorts of anthropological practitioners, all sorts of social analysis going on so I’m not going to criticise anyone for their success outside of the academy.  If anything, I’m all for it.  We all get dragged up this way, all get caught in the upflow.

 

Does success matter?

Well, we all write for an audience so success is relative.  If you develop a readership, then you’re successful.  If no one reads what you write, you’re writing garbage.  I have garbage posts that hardly anyone has read.  I should dump these now.  If they’ve been sitting on the website for nearly a year and no one’s read them, then they’re not successful.  So it does matter.  Having said that, there are some excellent cooperative, academic anthropological blogs that mimic the production of texts in standard publishing, but are available on the web.  Peer review, calls for papers, high end production – and then you have the single bloggers like me, who are sometimes hard pressed to keep coming up with content.  This is a production issue for anyone publishing anything.  It’s not new here.

 

Is it all about the stats? 

Well, we naturally tend towards wanting to find out how much, how many, how often and then to doing some number crunching to make ‘sense’ out the data…. Even if you’re not particularly inclined towards number crunching, the medium – like much of social media – really lends itself to number crunching, so you can’t help yourself.  There are sites that can help you though…

 

But there aren’t always a lot of likes or comments, so how do I know if my blog is having any effect anywhere?

This is true.  While some blogs may have thousands of hits which translate as reads/downloads/views, you don’t always get a translation into discourse, into comments, or even into likes.  Occasionally people will comment, or even like a post, but that’s not often the case.  And I’ve noticed this with larger anthropological blogging sites too.  The issue for me here is: what do people really make of what’s written here?  How do they read/consume what’s said?  Who do they talk to about the content?  Who do they pass the blogs on to?  I find that you get people wanting to comment who are typically mildly upset about what’s said, or seeking further clarification, evidence, or research into assertions that may be made.  But overall, there’s little interaction, which is a shame.

 

Why don’t I use references? 

I have a crisis of legitimacy occasionally and insert references, even though other bloggers tell me I don’t need them.  You don’t need them in this format, but it depends on the blog post and the audience.  If you anticipate that your work may be taken up and translated (this has happened), or posted on a Learning Management System for a course (this too has happened), or disseminated on other anthropological websites that have an academic turn, then, as is the custom and the norm, we too as anthropological bloggers follow this norm.  If I’m not quoting anything knowingly, I won’t bother using references and my preference is for opinion pieces that don’t necessarily rely on the interpretation and translation of bodies of knowledge.  I save that kind of writing for academic discourse within the pages of academic journals.  To my way of thinking, you write for a specific audience, and in blogging I don’t think that everyone’s looking for reference materials.  By all means publish your essays online, and these will include references.  And after all, why demonise references?  References are an acknowledgement of your joining in conversations that have already occurred as you position your own views against these voices.  Always better to acknowledge them and join in.

 

Am I just writing for other anthropology bloggers, and even if I am, is that such a bad thing?

I write for anyone that happens to land on my blog from a search engine, or has happily signed up to receive updates from my website.  If its other bloggers, then that’s great too.  I read their blogs with great interest as bloggers often get opinion pieces out there long before academic articles have even hit peer review.  I support both old forms of writing in academic presses, especially when I manage to get an article in print, as well as new forms of publication through weblogs.  The evolving medium, it’s growing acceptance and the democratisation that blogging allows I watch with relish and interest.  Like all processes, the wheat will be sorted from the chaff…

 

Why am I hiding my identity behind a pseudonym? 

A workplace Code of Conduct prevents me from revealing my identity.  Writing behind a pseudonym is an old and valued practice that has allowed voices that would not otherwise be heard a platform to publish their views.  I see that writing as the Anxious Anthropologist allows me to participate in the same freedoms, paradoxically because of restrictions to publicising my voice, that my writerly ancestors had to contend with.  Elsewhere I use my name and identify myself as coming from a particular space and place, a discipline, a specialty, even a sub-speciality.  But there is a challenge in writing like this that takes you out of your comfort zone, out of the familiar terminology, the same arguments and the usual webs of significance that you weave around your worlds.  And this is fun.

 

Wouldn’t it be better to blog honestly? 

I would love to write under my own name, but as with many things to do so means that you have to be brave, knowledgeable and up to the personal critique that attaches to so many in the blogosphere.  It’s sometimes easier, and more freeing to write as I do.  And that doesn’t mean that I write dishonestly.  Anthropological endeavours can sometimes have the tendency of reporting back, reporting on and reporting about that shares something with the tools of the subterfuge.  Who hasn’t left the tape recorder run on sometimes without consent?  I’ve heard that this happens…

 

Where do I see blogs and blogging in future? 

I see that anthropological blogging, like blogging in many professional endeavours will become the norm, rather than the unusual.  Progressing through courses, moving into postgraduate studies and then into research and/or work will in future include the production of knowledge within spaces not evident now, in group blogs, personal blogs and workplace blogs.  We will all curate our knowledges in this way and make them available to anyone interested in our views, our analyses and our growing bodies of knowledge and practice.  I can’t imagine what blogs will look like, but it is such an accessible, powerful medium for communicating and sharing, I just know that it’s not if we should, but when we will.

Acknowledgements (and respect to): https://thegeekanthropologist.com/

Photo credit: http://vayzo.com/images/stories/designer-glass-frames-for-women-.jpg

 

For anthropologists, is interdisciplinarity ever truly a meeting of equals?

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I recently read a Twitter post which asserted that interdisciplinarity was never a meeting of equals. As an anthropologist working outside of an academic department I met this statement with some unease. Currently, my working relationships are built on a premise of difference, of working with others from bounded, clearly demarcated professions and of thinking critically about if not directly challenging the taken for granted world views in the industry in which I work. I have written elsewhere about the role, function and value of anthropologists in workplaces, but in doing so I wrote from the basis of anthropologists as different but equal.

However, thinking more critically about this has led me to problematize this idea. I don’t believe I’ve adequately taken into account the importance of boundaries, of professions and their knowledges, and the challenges that anthropological thinking may represent for work practices. This is especially true for working in business contexts when we bring anthropological understandings of persons in the world and our armoury of social and culturally based research skills that recognise, situate and give voice to difference into business contexts. Can work environments which may value and seek unifying concepts and ideas tolerate diversity in conceptualisation, in approaches, in performance, in views and at the end of the day, in business practices themselves?

In working across traditional disciplines, we hope to inform and build something greater than the sum of parts. While this is a hackneyed expression, it’s true in my work where my current project challenges and reinvents our products and services, situating what we would be seen to do traditionally in a postmodern context.

I can’t tell my workmates that we are intimately informed by post colonialism in formulating our practices, or that we’re in the process of radically deconstructing our beliefs in reconfiguring power relationships, or that our project is partially informed by cultural theory, whiteness studies or the centrality of thinking about the authority of the first world within globalisation in determining how our business will proceed and upon which specific decisions will be made. But this is in fact, what we are currently doing. And I do try to tell them.

How have we created a space where these practices are okay, more than okay in business? Is this the armoury that partly informs the anthropologist at work outside of the academy? Or am I on my own here??? And how does this and other knowledge affect the decisions made in my workplace? I still ask myself: what does it mean to work with professionals in bounded disciplines?

While we hope that it isn’t so, in fact what I have termed ‘hierarchies of relevance’ do exist when working across disciplines. And this is part of the reflection on power that demarcates one professional group from another. By this I mean that each professional group maintains the boundaries of its knowledge base, its practices, its rules for conduct and less overtly protects the prestige and culture surrounding its existence within the community. Professionals also maintain control over entry, exit and rule breaking within the profession as well as maintaining controls over the education and transmission of the education that helps to create professionals. In this, professional groups control the knowledge base, language, practice and boundaries that form the basis of their professional identity. As anthropologists, we do this too.

So what happens when professional groups collide? I’m not master (or mistress) of the theories behind interdisciplinary thinking, but I do work within an interdisciplinary context and so am familiar with its practices, if not the theories that underpin it.

So in discussions, working on projects, working both internally and externally the issue of relevance often raises its head. If as the anthropologist I am identified as not having the ‘relevant’ expert knowledge, then my contributions are marginalised, often identified as contributing knowledge in some other, exotic way that runs counter to the usual core practices of knowledge acquisition within the business itself. My contributions are ‘interesting’, ‘quirky’, ‘outside the box’ and, paradoxically sometimes also ‘right on target’. In this way I am relevant, but not as relevant as those practitioners who are seen to belong to the core groups, our consultants, experts and the ultimate targets: the consumers of our products and services. Sometimes, I just feel so not-relevant, it’s just not funny.

As an outsider I will never automatically gain entry into the professional groups with which I work. However, if I hang around long enough maybe they’ll give me an honourary membership after toiling away looking at, investigating, updating, improving, teaching on and training people within their disciplines for so long. As an anthropologist I maintain that little bit of professional paranoia that harks back to Anthropology 101 and studies of ritual, sacrifice, demonization and scapegoating, which not so surprisingly still exist and speak to modern day work practices and contexts quite succinctly, especially for those anthropologists working outside of research in business settings where it’s all too easy to take on the identity of the Other.

It would be so much easier to talk frankly about exactly what I do and where I work, but unfortunately that’s not a luxury that I’m allowed right now, due to an array of policies that police my behaviour both publicly and in private, so suffice to say this is the best that I can do. This form of writing however forces me to think ‘bigger’ about what I do, and so while not completely honest is not dishonest and offers food for thought for many anthropologists (I hope) who work outside the academy as I do.

So are we different but equal? Or just different? As the project I’m currently working on gains pace, I find myself central to the think tanks at work, consulted over and beyond my current job title specifications and have access and input into arenas of work that I wouldn’t ordinarily warrant based on my position alone. I went from fear about this project and its implications, to neutrality, to feeling positive, to being involved by responding to requests for inputs, to embracing and now championing this project.

Now, whenever I’m asked I always come to the party and by that I mean that I complete tasks and contribute over and above whatever’s asked. If I’m asked for an opinion, I give it. If a project needs appraisal, I take time to read, review, comment and advise on it. If a vox pop is required to test the feeling and views of staff on an issue pertaining to the change, I’m already all over it (by nature a chatterbox and also keen to find out how my co-workers are going with things generally). Through my silences and non-attendance, I also make clear my views on some work practices, which in less industrialised and unionised times it is difficult for workers to address directly.

Informally I’ve identified myself not so much as a manager in the workplace – my anthropological training and background would definitely preclude this I think – but definitely as a leader. As there are about a thousand theories on leadership, there’s one that fits the kind of work that I undertake in the workplace, that I inspire and the work that I envision as well. And none of this is on my job description per se, but is alluded to as a potentiality, much the same as the potential or capability of any number of workers with contemporary CVs.

So mostly I find that I’m different but equal and have given my peers, co-workers and management a taste of what the social sciences and anthropology specifically can offer to contemporary work settings, both private and public sector organisations. I still believe that the greatest benefit of having an anthropological background lies not so much in trying to attain a position within the academy, positions which are few and far between and not so easily available to women over forty, but in taking up the challenge of flexibly applying our body of knowledge in diverse contexts, of making the theories, theorists, knowledge and practices real.

Do we lose our specialness, our anthropological know-how, our unique identity as globe trotters seeking to document the life of the Other when we’re not surrounded by like-minded, similarly trained professionals like ourselves? Is our knowledge base and are our practices corrupted and diluted because of our work in interdisciplinary settings? I don’t think so. In contrast I believe that we are strengthened by our ability to work across boundaries as anthropologists continue to fight for relevance in contemporary work place settings. We can only make ourselves relevant by, well being relevant. And this is the challenge that I rise to meet when I go to work every day, carrying the identity of the ‘anthropologist’ through all that I do.

And as I’m always blathering on about anthropology I like to think that I’m also educating people who may still think that my satchel secretly holds a pith helmet, notebook and safari suit. But please see my last post for an update on what to wear to work as an anthropologist.

Photo credit: https://www.newton.ac.uk/files/covers/968387_0.jpg

An article! An article!

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If there’s one thing that helps to ground you when you’ve felt voiceless or powerless in the past, it’s when you see the writing equivalent of your name up in lights, that is to say, in print, as a solo author in a peer-reviewed professional journal article. That is about to happen – just give it days and I CAN’T WAIT. This is not skiting, as immersion within the process of imagining, thinking, articulating, writing, editing and preparing your thoughts on a topic and submitting this for peer review (and resubmitting or even ignoring for a long time and then resubmitting) is a whole thing in itself. I feel reborn as a gen-you-ine author.

But as we all know, the anticipation of a thing, it’s near reality, the near-completion, the not-quite-there- yet is more important than the actual publication itself. While it is still a potential, it is powerful because it has not yet come to be, has not yet come to be known. Those ideas, put together and uniquely fashioned by me in my own way with my own references and turn of phrase have not yet been picked up, consumed, digested, regurgitated and spat out yet. It’s still in the future, even though it’s the imminent future. And while it is still becoming, it (the article) and me (it’s author/mother/father) also reside in the zone of potentiality. I can’t be dated by my last work because it’s still a work in progress and hasn’t come to be. Beautiful logic, isn’t it?

This reminds me of the difficulty faced by researchers in gaining grant monies. No sooner do they apply for and receive monies, there is no time between this event and the anxiety riven process of putting together the next application. There is no time to rest on your laurels, to be known for the last piece of research published and it is clear to me that the anticipation and expectation is better than the event itself. It’s all downhill afterwards… Academia is really about what’s coming, rather than what is.

But more than this, it’s not just me and my voice alone in the article. When I talk about having a successful journal article publication I’m joining in the stream of conversation about the topic that I wrote about. I’ve drawn in the great words of like-minded and opposite-minded thinkers to position myself within the tensions of these opposing arguments. I’ve had to take a position myself and position myself I certainly did. This is challenging, because you have to align yourself one way or the other. No fence sitting. You take a position and align yourself with like-minded authors who’ve been there before. That’s one way of writing.

There are other ways too, but the important point is that I’ve joined the conversation. I’ve made my observations and put forward my contribution. I’ve drawn on the expertise of those who came before me, but I’ve put my thoughts together to say something and it seems to be of merit. I’m not voiceless anymore, or just banging on about something and getting sick of hearing my own voice. I’ve taken the next step, and it started at least a year and a half ago, even though it’s coming to fruition now. So, what are you waiting for? Dust off those manuscripts sitting in the drawer, locate those rejection slips and get editing.

Photo credit: https://lib2.csusm.edu/guides/photos/photos/original/AAA_journal_article_in_ref_cited_list__labeled.png?1297109935AAA_journal_article_in_ref_cited_list__labeled.png

Reading fiction as therapy

Recently I found a website that offers fiction as therapy. You have a consultation of sorts and they send you away with a list of novels to read over the next twelve months. The problems sound like the concerns of everyday life, not serious psychiatric disturbance and the list given to people to read sounds like a prescription of sorts, specifically for you to heal yourself through reading a list of novels, selected specially for you.

Having just rediscovered fiction after almost a lifetime of hardly reading any at all, I now wonder about the idea of fiction as therapy and think that this idea needs to be interrogated. What goes on? What is read? What is the psychic shift that occurs – or that the prescriber hopes will occur – in the reader? Does everyone get the message, get affected in the same way by the same works? Do classics work better than other forms of writing? Does your age make a difference? And more of course…

As I work my way through ‘Missus’, a classic of Australian fiction written by Ruth Park sometime in the 1950’s about the characters who will feature in her later classic, ‘The Harp in the South’ I cringe painfully as I start to recognise character traits in myself, in people I know, in people I live and work with including members of my own family. I recognise modern versions of the same dilemmas faced by the characters in the novel and wonder how I would resolve them in my own life. You always balk at the reality of insight as it hits you and it is this realisation that I have come to about fiction.

Fiction gives us the opportunity to share in the stories of our own times, in the taken for granted understandings and insights about the human condition. Novels may be thinly veiled fact, or completely imagined, but the characters, situations and tensions are all drawn from something in real life. Everything’s a story one way or another and in reading fiction we all seek to get to the point of the work, and there is always a point, a message, a reason for the storyteller to put pen to paper in the first place. This is the novel that we all have inside us, the tale that we all wish to tell.

I am not a scholar of fiction, literary or otherwise and can only offer opinions on having rediscovered both being a writer and a reader. My writing takes the form of everyday administrative rubbish, occasional scholarly work and more regular blogs while the reading now takes the form of a delicious immersion in fiction.

I feel like I have rediscovered a secret world, an open secret held by everyone but me, a world of tales unique and common, imagined and real populated with characters who I both love and hate, easily identify with and ponder the reasons why some author bothered to characterise, draw and write about some of them at all. And some of the people I’ve read about, well, there are characters that I really dislike. I’ve been reading and writing non-fiction for so long, I have wondered what the point of fiction was? Ridiculous really for someone whose bread and butter is people’s stories of everyday life…

So if the point of therapy is to cure, and novels are being recast as therapeutic tools, then what is happening when people read in a curative fashion? Are novels taking the place of elders in the community? Are they taking the place of the lessons we learn from parents, friends and others in our social worlds? Are they providing the ah ha experience that is lacking in our friendships, in our social relationships? Are they replacing the GP, other people within society in whom we put our trust, share our fears and seek guidance from?

So let’s get back to the real and away from the conjecturing – what have I learned since I returned to the novel?

I’m finding out about women, about the conditions of life that we have lived in and continue to live in. A feminist autobiography rather than a novel really, but it rekindled and reaffirmed my belief in feminism and reminded me of the real challenges that women continue to face.

I’m finding out about the stories that circulate about parenting. Reading fiction about families has taught me about what some of the taken for granted understandings are that parents across generations, across ethnicities and across time have shared. Not all children are perfect and so too, neither are parents. And we all have varieties of children, and these tales too have already been told.

There used to be more privacy and respect for privacy too. Sharing on the scale that we encounter in the modern day just never existed. People had private lives, private thoughts, private desires and others didn’t necessarily participate in these the way we all do now in our voyeuristic and observing societies in which nothing cannot be written in response to ‘how are you feeling now?’

I’ve learned about relationships, about the kinds of things we strive for, about self-disclosure within relationships, about needs, both met and unmet and about the different ways that people come together through varied circumstances. I try to fit my own narrative in there somewhere too…

Intangible elements such as the joy of following one’s nose, following one’s passion and becoming a leader in your field despite obstacles get portrayed in fiction. I love this and find it inspiring. We all need to be inspired and find this through different ways in our lives.

There are stories to guide you in your quest for self-improvement and enlightenment (help me please, I can’t stand some of this), but it does teach you something about your own limits as well. Do I put down a story I’m hating by page 33, or do I persevere? Is this a metaphor for my bad relationships too? Should I just learn to let go earlier? But, like in relationships, there’s always something that just keeps you on the page…

I’m finding that I’m drawn more and more to biographies, even to autobiographies, which if you’re writing these mid-life are really a form of memoir. While claiming to be factual, they can only ever be a perspective, even if it’s your own perspective on your own life. Everything is contextual, isn’t it? How do people account for themselves? How do people account for the horrors of their upbringing? How do they account for the marvellous circumstances in which they found themselves? Or how do they account for the striving in their lives that brought them to the place in which they can sit and reflect now? I love people’s stories.

So can fiction help you? I think that it can, in that fiction exposes you to characters, situations, dilemmas, the possible and the impossible and shows you how someone else has conceptualised a dilemma, a person, a situation, a feeling and how they’ve dealt with this. In doing so, fiction can help us know more of the world in ways that we hadn’t accounted for, and that brings a richness into our own lives and the way we live and share our lives.

So am I ill for needing fiction? Am I cured through reading fiction? Both and neither at the same time. It really depends on your perspective… I’m loathe to succumb to the further medicalisation of everyday life, but perhaps the reading of fiction allows us the opportunity in much the same way that tales always have of fixing that within us that needs mending through the knowing and knowledgeable words of others.

Photo credit: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/image/4605466-4×3-340×255.jpg

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Happy reading!

Change jobs, return to research or enrol in further higher ed?

You get to a point in your life where you start to reflect on your skill set and your current responsibilities and you wonder whether these match up with your desired, wanted skill set and the kinds of things that you want to be doing with your time. We all have an imperative to work, to be productive, to contribute to the social good, whether that be through our paid work or otherwise.

I’m sitting here with my CV in hand, wondering about taking the next step, what that should be, where that will take me and whether I’ll be skilled and experienced enough to do whatever it is that’s calling me away from where I am now, which was after all, a once highly favoured position, or so I perceived it.

I’m faced with questions: what happens when we get to the end of our current jobs, when we’re no longer as useful as we once were, when we dread getting up in the morning to face the same old, same old?

I’ve come to this way of thinking because of a number of changes at my workplace, where the imperatives of the business world are moulding our work practices and I’m not sure that I can honestly contribute to this new pathway. If I have to work in this kind of setting, I’d be better off working somewhere that included an anthropologist, not one working on the margins as I’ve been trying to do for the past three years.

It is not easy being a trailblazer. You have to work twice as hard: work to get the job done, and then work over and above that to promote this new discipline in your current workplace. I feel professionally isolated, and marginalised and coupled with changing business practices, I honestly feel like it’s time to meet new challenges.

Phrases from the new age and career counsellors come to mind: ‘this is an opportunity’ I hear, or ‘failure is a great teacher’ [it hasn’t quite come to that…], or ‘there’s something perfect waiting for you out there’, or similar phrases that preface the entries that come into my Inbox from SEEK, Indeed, UniJobs or any number of other ‘alerts’ that I’ve set up in my quest to find a new position.

University opportunities appear to have closed doors to me before I’ve even attempted to grasp the handle. Am I too old? Am I too long past the completion of my PhD [did I even know that there was a use by date for applications for Postdocs]? How would I mould my area of research into the proposed Postdocs advertised anyway? Seems like there’s little mentoring or assistance for those of us who aren’t assertive enough to be ‘flagrant self-promoters’ which, after all, you do need to be, indeed MUST BE in order to progress in the academic sphere. No space for the shy or retiring.

What other area involves such a critique of one’s performance as academia does? Your thoughts, your ideas, your arguments, your evidence, your appraisals, your plans, your applications, your ethics, your methodology – even your choice of supervisor – all these are critiqued as part of one’s performance as an academic. There are definitely more anonymous jobs around than working in the thought industries and producing new evidence with pats on the back from your peer-reviewers….

But if I’m honest with myself, the happiest times that I experienced in my working life was when I was doing my fieldwork for my doctoral studies. Everything was fresh and new, every experience was significant, all my reading added to my fledgling and emerging thesis, and all I could talk about was my very interesting fieldwork. Added to this were copious notes and a methodology that I took to like a duck to water. The hardest thing was writing up and coming to terms with some of the angst produced through, well the production of something new that made a statement about people and society. That is thrilling and the process of appraisal and review, while daunting is rewarding.

But what now?

If you move sideways and don’t follow through on your own work, your own ideas, your own area of expertise, well that area of expertise gets taken up by other people. You do not become the authority or have anything much to say about the area at all. Working sideways means that you’re devoting your efforts to the completion and fulfilment of other people’s ideas, of other people’s work, which may be aligned with yours or, more realistically, may serve to pay the bills until you can stand on your own two professional feet.

And that may, or may not happen.

Self-doubt is a crippling experience. Once you succumb to this, it’s hard to feel that you can contribute meaningfully to your discipline at all. One way to alleviate this though is to contribute where you can: attend a conference, write about and present what you know, what you’re currently involved in. One thing that anthropologists do well is problematize a set of social circumstances, then pull them apart minutely to examine them critically, then, applying an informed theoretical perspective, put it all back together with the new evidence to make sense of the thing.

This is the seed of opportunity, and if you find yourself floundering where you are, “make a virtue of it” as my Honours supervisor, recently deceased once told me. An outrageous intellectual, he was full of advice about proceeding with one’s ideas that I find I’m still passing on to students who come my way.

So maybe I should do that: take the problems that I’m presented with at work, problematize them as something worth investigating, turn this into a research project, apply for funding and set out to find out something new to share with the discipline.

Or find a Postdoc

Go somewhere else, not in the higher education sector. What the hell would I do? Would I, indeed could I be useful anywhere outside the public sector? Would anyone value my skills enough to want to pay me to work in their company? I’m starting to get the heebie jeebies thinking about this.

What about returning to studies myself? My supervisor at uni encouraged me to go straight from an Honours degree to Doctoral studies, claiming that many women often progressed through to a Masters but were daunted by the thought of taking on a PhD, so I should go straight for the higher qualification. What I didn’t realise was that a Masters was useful in a work sense as it gave some structure through coursework and a minor thesis to areas that were immediately applicable in a work environment.
I should have done an MBA instead of a PhD.

One university in Sydney is currently touting MBA’s for women who are currently vastly underrepresented in this area, offering a pathway with shared costs and sponsorship by employers to assist women in completing this higher level qualification. Here’s the story: http://mq.edu.au/newsroom/2014/11/21/mgsm-announces-major-investment-into-womens-management-education/

But is that me?

This is the issue: if you’re planning on taking up higher degree studies as an adult, then you have to be highly motivated, and above all, really WANT to study the subjects in order to qualify for that degree. If you honestly can’t see yourself majoring in any of the strands offered, then maybe you don’t really want that qualification, or don’t really want to qualify in that area. Further studies in research similarly mean that you MUST WANT to investigate the research topic or idea that’s burning away in the back of your consciousness.

So here I sit, procrastinating as I write this blog instead of reframing my CV and attending to my Inbox. Wait, I hear the ‘ding’ telling me something’s come in…  All offers will be given serious consideration…

Photo credit: https://slayingevil.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/crossroads-sign.jpg