There’s a moment in Heart of Darkness when, Kurtz, at the instance of his death, cries ‘The horror! The horror!’ The terror, madness and awful spectre of what has been and what is yet to come lie before him and he cannot help but exclaim and lament his fate.
This is a fair and true reflection of how I currently feel about sociology. And literature. And my PhD proposal. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that being interdisciplinary in a compartmentalized funding system is A Very Difficult Thing.
Problem one is my all-encompassing identity crisis. So I’m interested in sociological stuff, but my particular areas are poles apart: sexualities versus critical theory, Frankfurt style. Added to this my determination to get the sociology of literature in there, plus my chronic funding application state which is pushing me to write a literary criticism oriented AHRC bid in addition to my ESRC bid, plus thinking of a suitable MRes dissertation topic, all ends up in me writing at least four different proposals – and for one of them there are multiple variations on a theme. It’s too much. Someone needs to stage an intervention, possibly involving a bucket of cold water and a Monty Python-esque fish moment.
Problem two is that I still can’t work out where I fit. My first AHRC draft was deemed too sociological; my ESRC ideas have been suggested as literary (it was the same proposal): who knows anymore where ideas fit? Methodologically I’m certainly of the literary persuasion. But it seems that library visits, hard thinking and then writing stuff is not a recognised research method in the social sciences. Conceptually, I’m sociological. In terms of goals I’m not concerned with saying new things about literary texts, but I do want to make a contribution to how we understand ourselves, the formation of our society and the ways in which we ‘do’ culture. Throughout my methods courses I’ve yet to come across a method that I’ve thought would be more appropriate to analyzing texts that what we do in literary criticism. Sociologists have discourse analysis (and critical discourse analysis, you’re a bit of a knob) which is a lot like lit crit but with different words and there’s some attempt to science it up. I like it but for me it feels like reinventing the wheel.
So I’ve been spending the last month or so writing like a bastard and then scrapping most of it as I come a little closer each day to understanding what I want to do and how. It’s a slow, painful and horribly reflexive process of undressing hidden desires and admitting what I actually am concerned with rather than what I think will look good on a CV or status-driven ideas of appearing to do something very hard. And all this writing brings me neatly to something which has been plaguing me throughout November.
No, not awful moustaches – #acwrimo – which if you are unfamiliar stands for Academic Writing Month. The point is to make a concerted effort throughout the month of November to write as much as you can on your current academic writing project. Then you tell everyone about it on Twitter, thus creating a feeling of positivity and productivity. Or so goes the theory. Personally I find it ghastly, to the extent that I wonder if Kurtz himself had taken part and that this was one of the horrors he regretted in his final moments. I’m all for creating supportive atmosphere which allows the flourishing of new ideas, the exploration of our interests and which buoys our flagging self-esteem – and we need this in both our online and ‘real’ lives. To be sure, one of the biggest lies about academia is that you do it alone – that it’s a career for people who like spending their time outside the company of others. Certainly you have to be able to work alone for long stretches – no one is going to write your work for you – but you absolutely cannot do it alone. The support of others is vital. So, in a way, I do understand the impetus behind the collective writing movement, the spurring on and the frequent exclaimations of content produced and word counts shooting ever higher. But I’m more and more uncomfortable with the version of academia we’re selling ourselves through movements like this: that writing comes easily; it happens fast; that your body of work is sound despite being produced quickly; that you’ve had three internationally significant REF-able ideas and it’s still only breakfast, and so on and so forth. It seems to happen more so on social media than in offline life, and is particularly apparent on Twitter. It seems we’re all desperate to give an impression of ourselves as coping easily, unflappable, happy, well-adjusted, creative powerhouses of intellectual thought. Who wouldn’t?
Well, I’m going to come out an say it straight: I’m not. Not only do I occasionally find writing hard, but I find the thought process that goes into deciding what exactly to write even harder. I also sometimes have really brilliant ideas and when I do start writing, it’s awesome and orginal and it makes me feel invincible. And then there are the days when I feel like Oscar Wilde and all I do is put in a comma – and then take it out again. There are brilliant days when I write thousands of words and they all end up staying but these are pretty much balanced by the days when I write utter bollocks. The #acwrimo challenge is certainly a worthy one and I’m not questioning its validity and presence in online working but what I will question is some of the motives of the way that people share their #acwrimo challenge work. There are a decent number on my Twitter feed who are honest and open about how much they’ve done and report the writing blocks as well as the successes. I think this makes for an inclusive community. However there is a significantly higher proportion (mostly of retweeted comments, to be fair) that focus solely on how well they are doing to the extent that it becomes boastful. No matter how productive I am personally, I always find this alienating. Whilst I love hearing good news stories from most people, I realize that I enjoy hearing their fortune because I can see how hard they’ve worked for it. Others seem merely to want to let the world know that they’re successful and succeeding. To me, that doesn’t count as community.
Sometimes talking endlessly about what you find difficult is the wrong thing to do – in being so negative and despondent, you only succeed in fulfilling your pessimistic prophecy. But often it can be inspiring and freeing to admit that you’re stuck or that you love what you’re writing but it’s going a bit slowly, or that you’ve trapped yourself in a thought-spiral too tight to unwind but you’re sure there’s something good beneath the debris. If there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far it’s that admitting my failures is the necessary first step to putting them right.
The Accidental Sociologist is Sarah Burton