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Posted by on Jan 18, 2014

Academic Identity and Equilibriums

This post is on academic and networked identity, and my awkward observations on both. I was inspired to write this post by someone infinitely more capable and articulate on the matter, Bon Stewart. Her recent post (epiphanies: massiveness + openness = new literacies of participation?), as all good writing does, has me reflecting on my own experience and development within these identities and fields.

I should start with the passages that propelled me to think on this in terms of my own experience. The first:

I’d also been thinking – as part of my ongoing dissertation research – about the conflicting concepts of success that circulate in academic networks and academic institutions, for lack of a less blunt distinction. I don’t believe the two are entirely separate – each has its broad constellations of semi-shared understandings, and there’s overlap – but my own experience of them is profoundly different…

This is an important distinction for those of us straddling the fence a bit in terms of academic and professional identity (sometimes, but not always the same thing), and communication validated by these fields (academic writing vs. professional writing vs. blog writing vs. media, etc.). I find that the writing I do here (on this blog) is my bridge between these worlds, a type of writing that is indeed validated by my community of non-academic types (those involved in edtech, non-profit, private enterprise, informal learning, etc.), but still sneaks in as a type of informal self-reflection/academic discourse for the higher education communities I participate in.

This latter group has stealthily and slowly consumed my overall focus in the last few years, which I suppose is quite predictable considering that I am a PhD student and an Assistant Professor. I am knee-deep in academia and assuming its values and modes of interaction, shifting noticeably away from the non-profit and edtech camp where I have spent most of my professional life. And I lament that at times, but I remind myself that it is a current oscillation. I swing back and forth like a pendulum. But I digress. Back to Bon Stewart’s writing.

I want to make a career of scholarship in a time when the whole field of higher ed is practically in hiring freefall. I suspect, whether that ends up being my destination or no, I’l be – in the fine Myles Horton tradition – making the road by walking.

I find myself in much this same position as well. Preparing for a life of scholarship in a seemingly decaying industry (in terms of its ability to offer actual gainful employment; not so as a community of ideas, where it is still, more or less, the best show in town). So I prepare and write relentlessly both here (blog, social media) and there (academic papers, books, etc.). I participate in my delineated camps (ICT4D, mobile learning, elearning, informal learning, Humanities, higher education in Korea and elsewhere) both here (informal learning, non-profit project work, project management work, collaborations) and there (academic collaborations, conference presentations, etc.). I exist both here and there and define myself through my capacity merely to slip and slide my way through both reasonably convincingly. They overlap, sure, but there are times when I show up for the academic cocktail party wearing my ICT4D jeans and need to change in the closet. There is always a sense of movement and alignment involved.

And through all of that movement back and forth, there is this further oscillation across physical space. My wife and I move around. A lot. Sometimes for my work; sometimes for hers. It is tiring and exciting and frustrating and inspiring. Professionally, it has been an asset. If one is willing to go anywhere, every position is within reach. The markets expand a bit without any sort of geographical sense of home or homing space, but it is not a lifestyle for everyone. I have coveted my mobility as it provides options for employment. And these spaces, physical geography, academic identity, academic communication, professional vs. scholarly, etc. are all conflating into one lived space. I feel as though I am emerging from liminality into an identity that won’t value this perpetual oscillation across fields and spaces as much as this current manifestation. Something is emerging. And no, I am not embarrassed to pull the following from Wikipedia.

In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.

So this threshold is indeed ahead of me (presumably once through the process of the PhD), but it is a threshold identity, a fluid one. The threshold knowledge (Meyer, Land, 2003) that I glean from it will be forever etched in my consciousness in a Vygotskian sort of way, remapping the contours of my actions and thought processes. I won’t be able to unlearn it. I won’t be able to unlearn my academic practices, my disillusionment with academia, my acceptance of its limitations and affordances. In short, the natural lifecycle of experience with any new system. But my identity might very well shift again from academic back to non-profit/private. And again. And again.

I believe in this ephemerality and emergence. And I believe that my value to my communities sits with these oscillations and shifts, like hyper-kinetic bees let loose in a field of flowers. We pollinate them all. Sometimes I bring value by connecting the dots, sometimes by connecting people in a network, sometimes by my enthusiasm and my capacity for grunt-work, sometimes by mere willingness to not say no. And, rarely, I bring value by my ‘big idea’. Aggregated, this is my value, but it is an unconventional one. It takes a little convincing. If I am able to convince academia of the value of this aggregation, then swell. If not, I will oscillate my busy bee-self to another flower.I believe I will follow Bon in that notion that my road will be made by my walking it. Absolutely true. 

But all of this is taxing on the individual. I don’t think that tax can be avoided. This emerging identity, these states of being and communicating, these larger issues of geography and employment, are all reflections of larger systems. They are always in a constant state of disequilibrium, just as any system needs to be.

“To stay viable, open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium…they participate in an open exchange with their world, using what is there for their own growth…that disequilibrium is the necessary condition for a system’s growth”

I am not sure where I pulled that quote from, but it was sitting there on my To Do List as well, begging to be used in a post. I am guessing it emerged from the large, ephemeral machine of my network. However, it is true on an individual identity level, a community level, and an industry level. This disequilibrium in us is this oscillation between personal and professional and academic identity, all of them authentic in the context in which they are being used.

On a community level, we have those we serve and are served by (in a good way), the identity formed through exchange and service. For me, this sits with mobile learning, ICT4D, my collaborations with Beni American University and my Finnish colleagues. Collaborations that might promote me professionally but I do them as I love the ideas and service. On an industry level, we have the academic and professional faces we put forth for validation, which are authentic in that they are purpose-driven. They might not reflect our sincerest thoughts, but public faces rarely do. The friction between these identities are actually driving some measure of growth (both personally and for the larger system). They are the disequilibrium that the quote refers to. But as any psychologist would tell you, internal discord can be poison in large amounts. Too much friction will shut down the system altogether. We look for balance in ourselves and in systems that can never be perfectly balanced.

So, I think am generally comfortable with these multiple states of identity as long as my work serves someone, somewhere or is validated somehow. I find I often do my best work on the outside looking in and, as PhD students, we are these peripheral participants  feeding energy and innovation into the edges of the community. Some of this innovation is validated, most isn’t. Some of our contributions in writing are validated; some aren’t. I find that some of my work that isn’t validated by one community is valuable to another. So I push my work and my identity around, looking for some flower to accept my frenetic activity and let me buzz around the edges for a while. I apparently wasn’t ready to let that metaphor go.

Many thanks to Bon Stewart for the post.

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2 Comments

  1. many thanks to YOU for the response and the continuation of the conversation. your point about needing to have work validated somehow, and thus buzzing around looking for different communities/flowers to do so seems huge to me – a piece that seems to be emerging in my own PhD research as well in terms of why people USE social networks for academic identity work. increasingly, it seems many of us in grad school and adjunct life are wondering if there will even BE a place in formal academia for us, and so perhaps participation is a way of finding validation amidst the sunk costs that we aren’t sure will ever amount to more, in the formal sense.

    • Good point, Bon, about validation. There is this wonder, this sort of blind casting of fate to the wind, that surrounds our participation at the PhD level. The sunk cost point is valid. My wife and I pursue this education somehow sort of believing that it translate to upward mobility, or entrance into a community we would like to be a part of, but that is far from scientific proof. We just sort of believe it. I suspect, indeed am quite sure, that something positive will result from all this toil, but I am far less certain that it will have anything to do with formal academia. Thanks again, Bon, for the inspiration and perspective.

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