Describing life after the Ph.D., an academic highlights three aspects (opinion)

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I was recently asked to participate in a panel on Life After the Ph.D., with the aim of helping students enrolled in doctoral programs in design get a glimpse of what different career paths hold. More specifically, the panelists were asked to share up to three images that captured a typical day or week at work.

In academe, the familiar trio that stands in for our work is research, teaching and service. These categories, however, have been emptied of meaning, partly because of their overuse and partly because of the bureaucratic apparatus built around them. What’s more, the images that may represent these activities are not exactly distinct, especially after COVID: a cluttered desk of books and papers punctuated by an occasional coffee ring, a screen filled with small tiles of faces with so many browser tabs in the back competing for attention. That’s all there is to see, really.

But can we replace these generic representations with strong and memorable imagery that does justice to the work and help students grasp its emotional and intellectual intensity — imagery evocative enough to replace that of “an intellectual”? What does an intellectual conjure, anyway? Lone white man with thoughts? He who’s preoccupied with his scholarly ruminations, who occasionally ventures out to share his wisdom and serve his community? What can I say, authentically, from where I stand, that meaningfully captures both the urgency and mundanity of work in academe in all its joys and pains?

The trio of conspiring, complaining and cooking is what I’d offer in response.

Conspiring

Let’s begin with conspiring by remembering its etymology, which is “breathing together.” To draw breath is to sustain life — a given for some, yet a struggle for others. How we relate to air presents a larger question of how we relate to life and death, as well as one another. To me, it is the question of social justice that animates all I do. How we relate to air should arguably be the central mission of academic institutions, both literally and figuratively: think COVID, our warming planet and Black Lives Matter; remember the powers of knowledge.

Rhythms of inhale and exhale are essential to breathing — itself vital for being, knowing and resisting. As such, breathing is not an individual activity but rather a social and communal practice.

Breathing together captures rhythms of collective life, of being together. Breathing in stands for taking in, observing, experiencing, listening and reading. Breathing out is expressing, acting, making, speaking and writing. How we relate to air is a social and political question.

Remember, for example, how we talk of oppressive social and institutional structures as suffocating. That feeling of suffocation is all too familiar for those of us who find ourselves, one way or another, at the margins. Or think of academic hierarchies, social cliques or disciplines that (de-)legitimize some knowers, knowledges and ways of knowing. In that sense, too, breathing does not come naturally or easily. Not all of us are given a chance to breathe or have access to clean air.

Conspiracy, then, involves joining together with our kin, our allies, our lands and our ancestors. Conspiracy is about coming and planning together in ways that may not necessarily be aligned with our institutions and cultures. And conspiracy is absolutely necessary if we were to make room for more of us to breathe — and to breathe together.

I think of my work in rethinking, remaking and reimagining technology as conspiracy. Conspiracy is also how I think about what I do with and for my students, many of whom do not see themselves as belonging to the academy even though they are present in it. Conspiracy is how I think about the journal that’s dear to my heart, creating an ever-expansive polyphonic venue for activist and feminist theorizing and critique.

I use “conspiracy” as opposed to “breathing together’ to highlight that the work that I/we do may appear devious — especially in its departure from social, cultural or disciplinary standards and mechanisms of legitimation. That’s precisely the point. Those of us who have systemically been denied a chance of life throughout history often need conspiracies to sustain our individual and collective lives.

Complaining

So we complain and protest.

I have come to see complaining as a way of identifying, describing and challenging abuses of power. Complaining is about leaning into the pain and trauma to understand and counter it, because you cannot ignore it anymore. Complaining is a response to toxic, unfair, unjust or otherwise unpleasant environments of living or working. Complaining is the thing to do when no air is left to breathe. Complaining is a necessary complement to conspiracy.

“Complaining” is a much more apt word for the writing I do that is otherwise referred to as criticism — such as this one on the political (mis-)uses of unintended consequences or why self-driving cars must not be programmed to kill. Complaining takes a lot of intellectual and emotional energy.

That is especially because structural injustices have a way of hiding in plain sight. They hide behind seemingly necessary or even commonsense theories, methods and principles. They hide behind entrenched norms, rules and regulations. As such, it takes a lot of work to identify, name and describe them — let alone to challenge them or change them. And even after all this hard work, our complaints are all too easily dismissed or ignored for being not rigorous enough, for lacking empirical data, for being anecdotal and emotional, and for all the other reasons people often use to suppress knowledge practices outside the mainstream and those who challenge dominant powers and interests.

I also occasionally complain about people and processes, in my institution and beyond, on behalf of myself, my students and my colleagues or the broader public. This kind of complaint is even more exhausting, and more often than not, it doesn’t go anywhere. Attempts to unmask patterns of racist or sexist microaggressions, to highlight unjust hiring and admission processes, or to make ongoing inquiries to close the pay gap are familiar examples to readers of Inside Higher Ed — as is, often, their futility.

Complaining is nonetheless a responsibility that is both illuminating and necessary. It is a responsibility because of the power and privilege I hold. It is illuminating because it brings to the fore and magnifies the ideas and principles actually at work in our institutions — the cultures that hide behind empty promises, feel-good slogans and generic mission statements. It is necessary because of the suffocating nature of those injustices that, left unchecked, make living and being impossible.

Cooking

To sustain myself and my kin through all this, I cook! I cook for my family, of course, and for my friends. On occasion, I cook for my students, which I find particularly rewarding — especially as it often takes us on a journey of the origins of spices and stories of favorite home recipes.

Cooking is both nourishment and an act of love, essential to healing. I love cooking because of the look on my loved ones’ faces when they take that first bite and find it delicious. Cooking is about the joy of seeing and building relationships. It is both remembering and building memories. And in this sense, cooking is akin to teaching: the excitement of collecting the ingredients as I craft a syllabus, design assignments and think up questions around readings; the thrill of seeing students’ faces light up with ideas and thoughts; and the satisfaction of hearing them making connections to their own knowledges, histories and life experiences.

Cooking is also about all-too-often unappreciated or invisible labor. It is the tedious, not so glamorous but absolutely necessary work of maintenance: the nagging repetitive question at the end of every day of “What should we eat?” Or the angry, exhausting exclamation when I break something just as I am putting the last dish away at the end of long day: “I cannot do it anymore!” Teaching, too, is tedious and repetitive at times. My preparations do not always live up to what unfolds in class. Ideas, theories and methods break or simply do not hold up in face of new questions and circumstances. I have to figure things out on the go. I improvise — much as when I cook.

Last but not least, I find a strong affinity between cooking and inquiring. This is especially true if we take interdisciplinary research seriously for its disloyalty to methods and traditions that amount to disciplinary dogma. It is true if we restore inquiry as a practice based on curiosity and uncertainty. And so, in the same way that I might be scrambling to figure out what it is I am cooking as I gather up the ingredients and tools to make it, the uncertainty of research gradually shapes into questions and hypotheses in conversation with others. The ultimate aim is to grow and sustain life in all its diversities — in other words, to advance social justice. In this manner, cooking is inextricably tied to complaining and conspiracy.

So here is my recommendation to Ph.D. students and early-career individuals in the academy: set aside the trite categories of research, teaching and service. Let’s instead think of our work as conspiracy, complaining and cooking. That is likely to change how we think of our commitments and responsibilities. It might even reshape what we do and how we do it, too.