[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali’s prior posts: post 1 — post 2 — post3]
I’m still buzzing over Deepa’s question, posed as a comment at the end of my last post, “why must you write?” I read this question in two ways – 1) why must you write professionally, and 2) why must you write, ethnographically, about yoga and breathing. The question is a great opening into the final week’s prompt, which asks how academic precarity or marginality generates new intellectual possibilities. In my case, knowing that my situation could change, will change, at some point in the next few years, I chose a project that is more long-term. Something I can stay with through various contexts, a project that will travel with me in some form or other. Both yoga and writing (yes, writing) are such projects. Both offset the uncertainty I otherwise experience. Choosing projects that are close to home, and present a host of new and surprising challenges, is part of where I think we’ll also find new intellectual possibilities, and collaborations.
Yet it’s also critical to have the support of institutions, organizations, and colleagues. You’d be crazy to think you can go it alone, and why would you want to anyway? This post starts with the impulse to write as critical, generative practice, and ends with some comments on a roundtable session from the May SCA meeting, a session that speaks to the culture of academic precarity, marginalized work, and how we might support new modes of scholarship.
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In my first two years of graduate school, while at the University at Albany, SUNY, I had a fellowship with the New York State Writer’s Institute. At the time, I had not a clue how fortunate I was. I wish I had been taking notes. Diligently. What I would have been writing down is how visiting writers responded in the Q&A sessions that followed their seminars and readings. Invariably, an audience member (or members) would ask the visiting writer about their writing practice, how they worked and got published. Some writers were new authors, reading from their first novel or short story collection. Others were award-winning authors with writing careers that spanned decades. Now, as I just revealed, I did not take notes from this period, but I did manage to pull out a few general threads that I heard consistently over my two-year stretch at the Institute. One response repeated enough for me to hold onto is that it is through the practice and process of writing that ideas, arguments, and stories take shape. Characters come alive in relation to other characters and events. Stories come into being on the page, despite the extent of thinking and planning you do in your head. Ideas, narratives, and arguments might be floating around beforehand, in conversation with others even, but the process of writing translates and transforms them. For ethnographers, writing carves out a space for data, theory, and analysis to converse. For me, writing is a space of play and reflection. And it’s continued writing practice that makes this space, holds this space. These are things we’ve all heard, and felt and know as writers. But I think it bears repeating, again. Continue reading