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Posted by on Aug 11, 2015

Academic and Applied Identities: Exclusion and Overlap

Academic identities

Academic vs. Applied: The Twain Met

I recently (as in about 7 months ago) started a small consulting organization with like-minded colleagues focusing on mobile and ICT for development (#M4D & #ICT4D), course design, women empowerment and employability issues, developing nations issues, monitoring & evaluation (M&E) and the like. The name of the organization is Panoply Digital, I now link to it from my homepage, and we even sent out a newsletter. We are incorporated in London, have an address and business cards, and a growing list of clients.

I also maintain/grow my academic identity in mobile learning, digital education, open learning, and so forth. I near completion of the thesis. I still work in academia (in a Korean university), still write and publish (very) often, still participate in research projects, and still love teaching. I am comfortable not being the smartest person in a research group and know that if I am, I will be developing a lot less. I love learning, perhaps more than anything. I love the life of the mind, for lack of an original way to say that.

I have kept these worlds decidedly separate (as much as one can) lest I was signaling to one or the other the wrong intent or motivation. Participation in one did not spell a disinterest or disengagement in the other, and vice versa, yet I was told it would be perceived this way. I have always maintained a set of identities in regards to my participation and I have never been that willing to shed one or the other for the sake of appearances or for some token of fealty. I never felt I had to, at least before one of these two communities fully accepts my industry. To put it another way, I was on a clear inbound trajectory (think Wenger, 1998) to both the academic and development/professional community simultaneously. These trajectories, and burgeoning identities, were not contested in my mind. At times, they inform one another and I suppose I am always, consciously or not, looking for ways in which one can pollinate the other.

Yet the other day, I was told by someone that I respect that I was indeed sending the wrong message, particularly to the academic community, that I wasn’t committed. That I was hedging my bets. Riding the fence. I respected the candor and said so and I respected that this person clearly thought this was a negative, decidedly anachronistic aspect of academia (although certainly not exclusive to academia). Yet it remains, this lingering taste of exclusivity. It is bitter, but I get it.

Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the struggle, perceived or real, of the endeavor itself. This is tribal, this is camaraderie, this is identity fostered through toil and study and practice. This is a profession under duress, under attack, disenfranchised, and in disrepair (again, perceived or real). We wear these degrees like war paint, our publications like armor. We dig in and take our position on the ramparts. I get that. I honestly do. I kind of like the idea of perhaps one day joining a street gang of the mind.

But experience gets in the way

A few days ago I turned 40.

Since the moment I started graduate school (2004, 2009, and then 2012), I was told of the impending demise of higher education. I was told to throw away any daydreams of working in academia, to understand that there was a monumental glut in the market, that supply of graduates vastly outstripped demand, and so on. I was told to work or not work with certain people as it might advance my career, to publish here or there. I watched the onslaught of adjunct-itis, saw the concerted attacks on tenure, watched individuals I respected toil in something approaching poverty. Like the realist that I am, I prepared alternatives. I have cultivated these since my youth and will continue to do so. I have them now. I make no apologies for that. Again, I am 40.

Like the optimist that I am, I eschewed comfort and caution. I thought walking into graduate school or a doctoral program strictly as a professional upgrade or some sort of checkbox on the road to professional success sounded like cheating. I would heed the caution but not structure my learning engagement around it. I unabashedly believed, and still believe, that some magnificent transformation would come out of all of this. I didn’t think any other mindset was authentic or sincere, or even worthy of the ardor of the task ahead. I still feel that way.

I went forth believing (still) that working in academia was possible, is possible, will be possible. That proved to be correct as well. I am there now.

All of these assumptions, on both sides of the academic and applied continuum, proved correct. None of it contradicted anything. I am a husband, first and foremost. I am a working professional across several, often disparate, fields. I work in theoretical abstractions and pragmatic development. I research many things. I teach. I pursue research that is smiled upon favorably. I sometimes pursue research even though it has no chance whatsoever of ever positively impacting my career. I write that way still, as a balance between the two. With whimsical curiosity. I choose to cross-pollinate deliberately and conscientiously. I still am looking for the unifying dynamic across all this. I monitor myself to know when I am thriving and when I am fatiguing. I adjust accordingly (if not efficiently). I am a work in progress. As it should be.

And I would give up one for the other if the situation demanded it. My heart wants one more than the other. Yet if barred from one, I know that the other will have my industry. I will bring value to my community, whichever one or many it might be. I am too young to give up on any of my dreams, passions, or talents, however disparate. I am too old to not distinguish the appearance and the reality in pursuing them (and when that appearance and reality are one in the same). I am too optimistic to not believe that all of this will generate something of worth. So I continue down the disparate line.

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7 Comments

  1. Michael, thank you so much for this. And the timing! I feel like this a lot of the time, you just articulate it better than I do. On Saturday I’m going to be giving a presentation on urban design, in Japanese, to a group of professional Japanese architects and urban designers. It’s on research I did in San Diego last year, and that was heavily influenced by conversations with Dennis Dollens, you and others during the MSCDL. I’m actually referencing you in the presentation, which I’m planning to turn into a publishable paper.

    I’m 44. I’ve never published before, and it seems my mid-life identity crisis is to become an urban designer…sigh…we don’t make things easy for ourselves, do we? But I wouldn’t have it any other way either.

    • That is great to hear, Bo! Well done on all counts, including the lengths necessary to transform as you have done as an expat. From my experience here in Korea, no small feat so congratulations to you. We don’t make it easy on ourselves for sure, but I think you understand as I do that is what makes it all so magical, particularly when fused with the expatness of it all. Seriously well done, Bo. Take a bow!

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