The Elusive I

I’ve been thinking about academic writing and the absence of the I, the signifier of the first person. Some disciplines find the I useful as a method to that places you, the author in the text. The scholarship marked explicitly by your person, as if it could be any other way. Religious studies, however, is not entirely sure what to do with the I.

For some, relying on the first person becomes a marker of confessional identity, religious commitment, or activism. For others, like ethnographers of religion, the I is a necessary part of their practice. The scholar must be present because of the interactive relationship between you and subject. You must use the I to place yourself in conversation, events, and analysis. Sometimes, you need to note where you are and what you think. Often, this will require a shift to the first person.

My own training in American religious history seemed nervous about the I. For a long while, I was also nervous about what the use of I in my own scholarship and writing might mean.

My own journal articles (except for my article on evidence), my book (except for the introduction and afterword), book reviews, conference papers were all shorn of the author’s presence. I deleted (almost) every instance of the I.

In graduate school, advisors explained that “I think” “I feel” “I believe” weakened your arguments. This made you seem wishy-washy, ambivalent, or unconvincing. Make claims forcefully, they told me. Don’t qualify your analysis with I. Yet, I wanted to seem ambivalent because I was. I wanted to signal that this was my opinion, not a definitive statement about the subjects that I researched. I wanted less certainty, not more.

What I came to realize was that inserting your self into academic work made one’s work somehow lesser. Absent authors made bold arguments. Who needs visible qualification when you can stay hidden behind your evidence and arguments?

Graduate training eroded my presence in my scholarship. Not all of my courses sought to remove the I, but most massaged the personal pronoun away. The I slipped away in edits, revisions, and finished papers.

Our scholarship was not about us (but it always is). Objectivity was dead (except we played at it anyway). Subjectivity was an apparent flaw in the system; it couldn’t be avoided (but we tried to valiantly to eliminate it). Scholarship was about something bigger than us, perhaps nobler. It was a product of intellect, work, sources, and analysis, not bounded by the limits of our bodies and experiences (except it always was).

The I drifted away.

Even though I resented these unembodied approaches to scholarship, I acquiesced anyway. Sometimes, I still fought. I tried hard to include “I think/I feel/I argue” in early drafts of my dissertation. This was my perspective; I was fallible. Why couldn’t my prose reflect my own ambivalence, my tentative assertions, and my attempts to figure out things that might not have easy answers?

Yet, I removed the first person in draft after draft; the partialness of my scholarship smoothed away with a quick tap of the delete key. My claims and analysis appeared more assured than I ever really felt. The I was the bearer of my uncertainty, so I excised it. False sense of certainty took up residence in my work. My arguments appeared more and more convincing while I felt less convinced.

I faked certainty. I wished for doubt.

When I decided to take time away from academia, my writing transformed. The I exploded upon the page. I couldn’t contain my use of the first person. I, marked by the use of the I, appeared in every piece that I wrote speaking to doubt, heartbreak, pain, and ambivalence. Finally, I found a place in the text. I shuttered myself for too long, so now I reclaim my voice, my person, in each essay. What would my scholarship look like now? I’m not entirely sure.

What I now wonder (and fear) is that the removal of the first person in academic writing is an attempted removal of our selves from our scholarship. Editing out the I becomes a way to separate our selves from what we research, write, and analyze. Yet, what might we lose in this removal? How does the shift from first person to third person affect the way we write about our subjects and how we construct our scholarship? What happens if bold arguments can only occur with a shift away from the first person? Why don’t we want to mark our uncertainty and our ambivalence? Perhaps, we should start.

 

Gendering Brilliance

Writing specifically about merit and gender in academia, Linda A. Krefting, a professor of business at Texas Tech University, notes that stereotypes of women often “put competence and likeability in opposition.” What happens, then, is that competence appears as a problem for women, but not for men. Being too competent is coded as aggressive and assertive while appearing too feminine becomes a marker of incompetence.

Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, describes that same phenomenon as “the tightrope” that working women have to navigate. It is a pattern of bias, in which women who appear and act too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear and act too masculine are judged as lacking necessary social skills for the workplace. In particular, academia prizes brilliance and originality. For men, assertiveness can signal brilliance and confidence in one’s work. When women act assertive, we’re not brilliant, we are just bossy or lack social skills.

When I talked to Joan last year about her book, she specifically mentioned the gendered nature of “brilliance” in academia. She asked me, “How can you [a woman] be brilliant, deferential, and nice?” I admitted that I never mastered all three simultaneously.

How can academic women meet traditional gender norms in the workplace while also taking pride in our work, promoting our accomplishments, and showcasing our original scholarship? To be more blunt: Can academic women ever appear “brilliant” if that term — used to showcase high-level intelligence — is understood as a masculine trait?

Read more.

Ghost

I’ve been listening to Ella Henderson’s “Ghost” on repeat.

I keep going to the river to pray
‘Cause I need something that can wash all the pain
And at most I’m sleeping all these demons away
But your ghost, the ghost of you
It keeps me awake

Throughout the day for at least two weeks, I find myself singing about going to the river to pray. The line is oddly evocative and nostalgic.  I understand that need for prayer. I get that desire for all the pain to disappear into the current of the river never to trouble you again. (I was almost baptized in a river, but that’s a story for a different day.)

There’s a desperation in the song claws at me, but I feel compelled to listen. And listen and listen. Give up the ghost, she croons, give up the ghost. She pleads, Stop the haunting, baby.  Her words feel too truthful. They resonate too much. She’s haunted, and damn, so are the rest of us. At least, I am.

I’ve thought a lot about haunting. I’ve tackled haunting from a theoretical perspective as a scholar interested in monsters and, tangentially, ghosts, their ephemeral partners. I adore the work of Avery Gordon and return often because of her careful attention to how absences seethe and harm. How the absence of ghosts makes them present. How ghosts become the signifiers of  loss, trauma, and erasure. I read about ghosts with detached observation. Yet, the more I analyzed theories of ghosts and haunting, the more the question became personal and unavoidable. We all live with ghosts. We don’t always confront them. What began as scholarly questions about haunting transformed into an essay about a particular ghost of my younger life. I couldn’t theorize ghosts with confronting one of my own.  Continue reading Ghost

Bad Feminist

Here’s a teaser of my review of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist for Women in Higher Education. In the review essay, I describe my own ambivalence about the term “feminism” and my experiences being a feminist in academia. (Note to self: Some people are jerks.) This book is fabulous, and I would argue that what higher ed needs is more bad feminists.

I bought into the vision of feminism that its detractors portray: strident, unyielding and unwelcoming. I still believed in gender equality, equal pay, reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy. In practice, I was a feminist, but the word tripped me up. I found myself uttering, “I’m not a feminist, but …” in conversations.

Graduate school clarified the social need for feminism as well as my personal need, but the word proved to be problematic.  I noted the way male colleagues acted toward women who proclaimed their feminism with sighs, eye rolls, guffaws, and snorts. I observed how professors assumed feminist scholars were too subjective and not rigorous enough.

The derision and hostility that feminism engendered even inside the academy gave me pause. If feminism couldn’t find a home in academia, where would it be accepted? (I found pockets of safe space.) My feminism became stealthy and quiet, even as I studied and taught gender theory. I was happy with my background feminism. I knew what I stood for. Who cared if I labeled myself a feminist or not?

At my previous university, a senior male colleague pulled me into his office to explain that he was a better feminist than I was. This was not a random encounter. I was invited to participate in a methods and theory group, and he was not. He wanted me to know that I was only a token.

The group was mostly men, so he reasoned that they needed women. This could be the only possible reason that I was invited. He shamed me for my acceptance of the invitation. His feminism would not allow him to participate in such a group because of their gender politics. Thus, he was a better feminist, and I was a bad one. Continue reading Bad Feminist

Radio Silence

I know the blog has been remarkably quiet lately.

There are many reasons for this, including the children being off of preschool and school for about three weeks, the swirl of holiday engagements, and a pile-up of writing assignments (which is a good problem to have). Add to all of these a serious funk about what I’m doing with my life that seems to happen about every January.

I needed a break. I needed time and space away from social media, blogging, and the internet more generally to figure some things out.

I have now had that time, and I’m looking forward to getting back in the swing of blogging alongside my other writing. I cannot guarantee that I’ll blog regularly because I never really manage to do that anyway. In 2015, I will try to post something once or twice a week to keep y’all updated on what I’m doing. This is not a resolution but rather a goal.

I will be adding a new feature to the blog, essays that I love, in which I direct you to essays that I adore for reasons both varying and wide. Look forward to my first post soon. Additionally, I hope to be better at pointing out what I’ve written that’s recently published. Hope is the operative word. In the next few weeks, I’ll highlight my favorite essays that I wrote in 2014.

Keep in mind that you can see what I’m up to on Twitter (@kelly_j_baker) and on my new Facebook author’s page.